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How to Write E-mails in the Workplace

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One of my coworkers pointed this article out to me late last week and I thought it would make a great post. Poor e-mail etiquette in the workplace is devastatingly common, and often carries serious consequences. Coworkers can get the impression you’re careless, abrupt, insipid, disrespectful, snooty and so on, simply because your e-mailing style is a little off. (Of course, if one of those adjectives applies to you anyway, this probably won’t really help.) So if you suspect you’re not the most savvy when it comes to shooting off work e-mails, we’re here to help.

For starters, leave your intended recipient’s name OFF the e-mail until you are 100 percent ready to send it. This avoids accidentally sending an e-mail you haven’t finished, or worse, one that contains something you’d actually prefer your recipient rather not read. It might be cathartic to type an e-mail to your boss describing in minutia every last thing you think is laughable and imprudent about his proposed Q2 strategy, but it will be decidedly less so if that costs you your job. On a related note, never compose e-mails while you’re angry or otherwise distressed. Take the time you need to get calm and collected before sending e-mails to colleagues.

Once you have the e-mail’s text all squared away (aim for clear and concise, polite and professional) there are a few more considerations to deliberate before you hit send. Do you need to include an attachment? If so, have you attached the correct file? And please, please take the time to check for spelling and grammar. The occasional typo is forgivable; constant misspellings and bizarre grammar slips start to make you look foolish and sloppy. If the main topic of an e-mail thread changes, consider starting a fresh thread or at the very least labeling it with a new subject line, which you want to be snappy so your recipient will be more inclined to check it.

Now let’s discuss my least favorite feature of e-mail: the reply all button. Think carefully about whether your coworkers will see value in an e-mail, or whether it could be viewed as useless chatter distracting them from their work. In many circumstances, a simple reply to the originator will suffice. On the other hand, don’t get into the habit of arbitrarily axing people who are part of a reply all list, but always be careful you don’t hit reply all by accident, because that can cause big problems. Avoid blind carbon copying and forwarding, too — the former isn’t foolproof and both can cause you trouble. Basically, assume any and all e-mails you send could surface at some point, so evaluate your communications carefully.

Don’t expect to get an instant response to e-mails, either, because people have different styles of working. Some prefer minute-by-minute e-mail monitoring, sure, but others only check their e-mail once or twice a day. Similarly, don’t expect the people you interact with to remember relevant conversations; refresh them on the context of what you’re discussing. It’s also important to ensure you have the full framework of any given topic before you start blasting out responses, so check all the e-mails you’ve received that are pertinent to a particular issue.

Take it easy on the emoticons, too. There are different schools of thought on their level of acceptability, but most sources seem to recommend some caution. It’s probably smart to limit using them (especially the more obscure and elaborate ones) but they really can help convey sentiment in statements that are otherwise oblique. Decide what’s appropriate for your demographic and your audience. One potential strategy you might employ is to use emoticons (with restraint) when e-mailing workplace peers you’re friendly with, but to skip them when it comes to your boss or people outside your direct acquaintance.

Fingers crossed, adhering to these tips should help you avoid any workplace faux pas. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to follow How-to Stuff on Facebook and Twitter!

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