Business e-mail etiquette: 19 rules and helpful tips for online communications

Business e-mail etiquetteDespite the growing prevalence of texting, instant messaging apps and social networks in the business world, e-mail remains one of the most popular high-tech ways for modern professionals to communicate. Although over 300 billion e-mails are estimated to be sent every day, however, a surprising number of executives and entrepreneurs still struggle to grasp fundamental rules of netiquette.

In the interest of enhancing interactions with clients, colleagues and customers, following are several business e-mail etiquette hints, tips and strategies to follow, all of which can help you better connect and interact with others we encounter in corporate or commercial environs. For more netiquette and high-tech business etiquette tips, you can also see our new book Netiquette Essentials: New Rules for Minding Your Manners in a Digital World.

General business e-mail etiquette tips

  • Tone, context and subtle nuances are easily lost in translation when sending business e-mails. Before mailing, consider if your commentary could be misconstrued and/or misinterpreted, and if a phone call might be better advised.
  • Likewise, truly important or time-sensitive queries may be best addressed via a call, given e-mail’s periodic propensity to be delayed or misrouted by touchy servers and spam filters.
  • Once written, e-mails cannot be undone – watch what you say, whom you copy, and always think twice before sending them along.
  • Don’t write anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying in person – or in public. Easily forwarded and shared, and/or monitored by employers, inappropriate commentary may come back to haunt you. Professionalism is imperative.
  • Unless you get a response, don’t assume that e-mails have been received. Internet issues, inbox filters and even simple misspellings of e-mail addresses may result in communications going awry.

Copying others on professional communications

  • Be careful (and be careful to double-check recipients) when copying and blind carbon copying: A slip of the keyboard, finger or auto-completing contact form may inadvertently send messages to the wrong party, or result in dozens of parties’ contact information accidentally being shared with one another.
  • When sending to multiple recipients, consider blind carbon copying for courtesy’s sake, or creating groups of users which shield recipients contained in the group from seeing who else has been copied.
  • If you’re going to add people to the email conversation, let recipients know. (For example, “I’m copying John Smith, our head of marketing, here.”)
  • Before hitting “Reply All” – which sends messages to all individuals copied on an e-mail, not just the sender – consider whether it’s important for everyone to receive your response.

Email subjects and response times

  • For courtesy’s sake, subject lines should be short, sweet and directly relate to e-mail contents: Misleading or false statements, or needlessly open-ended or misleading questions (“Did you hear about…?”) will be poorly received.
  • Before marking e-mails as urgent, tantamount to putting an underscore under your message in someone’s inbox, genuinely ask yourself: Will the other party consider the query just as important as I do? If not, they may rush to read something that didn’t need urgent prioritizing, and be understandably irritated.
  • Courtesy suggests that we be timely about responding to e-mails. Most responses should happen within 24 hours. Should you lack time to respond that soon, it’s recommended that you at least send a brief note letting senders know when a proper response will be forthcoming. (“So sorry, I’ve been tied up at work with a last-minute deadline. I’ll drop you a line by the end of this week.”)
  • When away from your desk for travel or vacations, set an out of office response stating when you’ll return, and the conditions under which you may or may not be checking your inbox. (“Thanks for your email. I’m out of office on business until Friday, March 2nd, but will be checking messages periodically. Please be advised that some correspondence may be delayed, but I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”)

When to send and share

  • Business e-mails should, wherever possible, be confined to working hours – unless you’re working in different time zones and/or continents, recipients may be understandably perplexed to receive emails from you at 2:00 a.m.
  • Some busy people clear out their e-mail inboxes on Sunday night when they’re free from disturbances before the workweek begins. However, it is often inappropriate to contact them over the weekend. While you may not expect them to read messages until Monday morning, recipients may be offended when their leisure time is interrupted by what’s perceived to be an urgent work request.
  • If you are ceasing employment with an organization, it is OK send an e-mail update giving your contacts a heads-up and providing new personal contact information, which should always be professional and neutral or upbeat in tone. (You should also setup an automatic response making senders aware that you are no longer at the job, and whom to reach out to in your absence.) However, it is not appropriate to discuss new employers or provide contact information for your new position through a previous employer’s e-mail network.

Sending mass e-mails

  • Don’t automatically add users to mass e-mail lists without requesting their advance permission. Canada’s new anti-spam law came into effect on July 1st, and it’s imperative that you’re familiar with the law if you’re sending mass emails.
  • All mass communications should include an unsubscribe option that’s just one click away – and not request added steps like retyping one’s e-mail address, clicking menu options, or explaining why they’ve opted out of your communications.
  • When sending mass e-mails, use solutions that refer to recipients by first name, but be certain names appear in the same colour, font and size as the rest of the message, so the fact that it’s a faceless form letter isn’t obvious.

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