Email Etiquette: An Open Invitation to an Evolving Dialogue

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Facilitator and Coach at The Latimer Group.

In some parts of our lives, we love having rules to follow because they make it easier to make decisions, and they take away the guesswork. In others, we feel constrained by rules and resentful of their imposition.

Whether we like it or not, there are unspoken rules, an etiquette, to most of the things that we do, especially in our professional lives. Email is no exception.

The beautiful side of etiquette is that it evolves over time, just like we do.

Let’s consider what email etiquette looks like at this present moment, knowing that, like everything else in our lives right now, it could be totally different by next Tuesday.

We have identified our own Top Five Rules of Email Etiquette. As we share them here, we invite you to think about whether these fit your own experience and expectations. Add a comment or send us a line if you have suggestions – additions or subtractions – or stories to illustrate.

  1. We should respect the channel. (i.e., Don’t use email for everything.)

    While email is one of the fastest and easiest channels to choose for communicating out, we cannot use it for all communications. This rule may seem obvious, and yet it is violated all the time.

    Email is great for sharing information, for small asks, and for reinforcement of follow-up. Email works best for straightforward topics that do not involve complex emotion or incite an endless back-and-forth exchange. Overreliance on email can cause all sorts of problems.

    Furthermore, most of us have experienced an increase in our inboxes in the last two years, which means that email is taking more of our work time. Some of this extra use is justified, but some is just lazy. Even if it is often easier to dash off a quick email instead of picking up the phone or setting up a meeting to discuss, we must always carefully consider what email does best, and worst.

  2. We should respect the audience. (i.e., Include intentionally.)

    When addressing emails, we need to use the fields (to:, cc:, bcc:) carefully. Each serves a different purpose and should be used accordingly. Especially once our audience grows above three recipients, we should assign fields based on expected action. Otherwise, we lose clarity and risk inaction. Similarly, while email platforms have made it a default action, we should always “Reply” or “Reply all” with intention. And we all know why.

    When considering including someone new in a thread or forwarding a conversation, we should read through all prior exchanges very, very, very carefully to ensure that there will be no issues of confidentiality, discomfort, or offense. If we are at all unsure, we can simply create a new thread with a brief recap.

    Finally, when considering how we address our audiences with greetings and sign-offs, we can have favorites, but should choose what best fits the relationship and situation, striving for the right balance of professional and personal, formal and informal. And once we are a few responses into a thread (especially one-on-one), it is usually ok to drop them all together.

  3. We should respect time. (i.e., Consider their clock.)

    As a general rule, we should not write emails with the expectation of a reply within the hour. Phones and direct messaging are better in these instances. A more acceptable timeframe for email responses is within the same working day in which they are received, taking time zones into account. However, when something comes in past 3 pm for the recipient, it is generally ok for them to push it to the next morning. At a minimum, we should respond to all emails within 24 hours. This can be harder and harder to achieve with more emails to respond to and more hours spent in scheduled meetings.

    Especially with external partners, internal leaders, or urgent issues, we should strive for a rapid, yet thoughtful reply. Sometimes this requires two actions: a quick email response to acknowledge receipt with the promise of a later reply, and then the follow-up within whatever window was laid out. Our closest colleagues, those who know us well, will often tolerate a slightly longer response time, but with reputation built on repetition, we need to tread carefully here.

  4. We should respect priority. (i.e., Put it into perspective.)

    Not everything can be sent with ‘High Importance’ and “Urgent Response Required” in the subject line. Anything used too often will lose its meaning. In this case, it could also create irritation or ire. We should use our subject lines thoughtfully to highlight the expected action, but need to make sure we are respecting our audience’s perspective (and schedule) when assigning deadlines and setting priority.

    Also along these lines, however, and even more important, is curating and prioritizing the information that goes into our emails. We should not weigh down our electronic missives with extraneous words and details. Our writing process must not only include an editing of the substance (content, ideas, details) of what we are sharing, but also its style (sentence structure, word count, formatting), to ensure it is as easy as possible for the audience to absorb and apply.

  5. We should respect their emails. (i.e., Read carefully.)

    It is maddening to receive an email reply that addresses one question, but not the other two — just like it is maddening to be in a conversation and feel your audience has mentally left the building. Before hitting ‘Send’ on a reply, we should always take a moment to reread the original email and check whether or not we have noticed, processed, and acknowledged all salient points.

    There is almost no greater form of respect these days than the careful reading of someone’s email. It is so uncommon that it has become sublime. To stand out as communicators, we should all invest a few extra minutes in this simple courtesy. With this, we have the tremendous power of making someone – even just one person – feel heard.

With email’s importance growing day by day in our increasingly global, virtual work lives, paying closer attention to these rules can save us from distracting, irritating, and even upsetting our audiences. The further we progress into our careers, the more important this is, as our emails impact not only our own productivity and performance, but also that of our colleagues, our teams, and sometimes, our organization. If you have any comments to share, topics we’ve missed, or expansions on these choices, feel free to include them below, or… send us an email!

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.