E-Mail Rules Evolving, Experts Say

Lora Bentley

When ProCare Health fired Vicki Walker, the company complained that Walker consistently used all caps, bolded, and sometimes even red text in e-mails, which her coworkers found offensive and confrontational.


Anyone who's used e-mail for long has probably learned that using all caps in an e-mail is equivalent to shouting at someone and shouldn't be done. But I didn't know that until someone told me. And most of us have probably learned the hard way that there's a difference between "Reply" and "Reply All." But what other e-mail rules are out there? Have companies included them in employee policies? Are there opportunities for training?


A quick Google search revealed a plethora of resources on e-mail etiquette -- from sites like About.com and LearntheNet.com or from schools, such as Purdue University. Even more helpful for me, however, were a couple of blog posts from people in the know.


The first comes from Michael Hyatt, CEO at Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville, Tenn. In his post "E-mail Etiquette 101," he sets out 18 rules for proper e-mail. Forbidding all caps is actually near the end of his list at number 12. A warning against improper use of "Reply All" is there, too, at number eight. Hyatt's number one is also good: "Understand the difference between 'To' and 'CC.'" The people who are expected to reply or take other action because of the e-mail should be in the "To" field. Those who need to be kept in the loop but are not required to act are added in the "CC" field.


He also included others that I haven't heard before, but will put into practice because they really do make sense. For instance, number 10 says, "Don't 'copy up' as a means of coercion." If someone is not responding to an e-mail, he suggests picking up the phone. What might have taken days to resolve via e-mail can often be resolved in minutes over the phone.


Then there's number three, which says simply, "Don't discuss multiple subjects in a single message. If you need to discuss more than one subject, send multiple e-mails." This strategy usually results in e-mails that are more concise, which Hyatt says increases the likelihood of a timely response.


The second post comes from Missouri lawyer, speaker and writer Dennis Kennedy, who has become an authority on the application of technology to the practice of law. In his post "E-mail Etiquette 2.0," he describes how e-mail etiquette has evolved in recent years and tacks a few new rules onto the list. For example, he suggests using the subject line for very short messages, which obviates the need to open the e-mails. In the age of mobile and always-on communication, Kennedy also suggests it's important to "[t]hink about where and on what device your recipient will receive the e-mail."


All of these things are key when considering or drafting a company e-mail policy (or etiquette manual), and as Kennedy suggests, even if you've had an e-mail policy or etiquette manual for years, it's probably time for a revision.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 12, 2011 8:46 PM Tim Tim  says:

A couple of additional suggestions I find helpful are:

1. If you're addressing an email to2 or more people and expect one of these to act on your request, be specific in the body about what you're expecting of whom.  There's a good risk that one of the recipients will think another recipient will take the requested action.

2. If you're composing a longer email with background, details, etc. make sure the first line of the body explains in 1-2 sentences what your main point of the email is and the action you're requesting.  1-2 sentences should be an expansion of the subject line, but can provide additional detail.

3. If you're requesting action by a certain time or date, state the deadline, bold it, and even put it in red if necessary to call attention to it.  Use such formatting sparingly.

4. Speaking of sparing use, be careful when you use the Importance flag, especially "High".  I know of certain colleagues who consistently mark their emails as highly important--as if the rest of ours aren't.  I created an Outlook rule to automatically downgrade the importance of email from these people.

5. Relating to meeting invites, put the conference code number in the Location field of your message.  Outlook and other tools will often show the location information as a preview of the meeting invite, allowing readers to get this information without having to open the invite itself.


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