5 Lesser-Known Email Etiquette Rules You Might Be Breaking
By Alison Green
In the two decades since email began saturating most American workplaces, most people have come to agree on some basic etiquette rules, such as don't reply-all when you don't need to and avoid using all caps unless you're screaming at someone.
But there are finer points of email etiquette that aren't as universally acknowledged but can make you a far more effective emailer. Here are five lesser-known email etiquette breaches that you might still make.
1. Waiting to respond to an email until you know the answer – even if it takes days. Here's what this often looks like: You receive an email asking you for a specific piece of information. You won't be able to get that information until next week, so you put the email aside until you have it. But you don't email the sender back to let them know that that's the situation, since you're figuring that you'll just respond when you have the answer they're looking for. This is problematic, because the sender is left wondering whether you even received the message, whether you've forgotten about it, and what's taking so long. In some cases, they'll become annoyed.Do this repeatedly, and you'll create a reputation for yourself as slow to get back to people. The solution is easy: Send a quick email saying, "I should be able to get back to you about this by early next week." That takes 10 seconds, and then you haven't left anyone hanging.
2. Assuming that you don't need to respond if you're more junior than others receiving the email. If you're relatively junior, this might sound familiar: A co-worker sends an email to you and your boss, with a straightforward question that either of you could answer. You figure that since your boss is more senior, it's most polite to defer to her. In reality, though, your boss might appreciate you handling the query and saving her time – and might be concerned if she notices that you never chime in when you could be fielding routine queries. This is a case of "know your manager," of course, but if you're unsure if your manager falls in this category, it's worth asking.
3. Sending out "gentle reminders." You've probably noticed the trend of including the phrase "gentle reminder" in the subject line of emails that are, well, reminding the recipient of something. But to many recipients, the phrase conveys, "I think you might be offended by a normal workplace interaction and so I am approaching you very gingerly." There's no need to announce that you're softening the message, and that kind of tiptoeing will tick off many colleagues.
4. Responding to a serious or sensitive email with only "OK." Sometimes answering emails with a simple "OK" is completely fine; for instance, if your co-worker emails you about the new location of the copier paper, a longer reply isn't needed. However, if your manager emails you about a problem with your work and you write back nothing more than "OK," you'll likely come across as inappropriately flippant or curt.
It can be especially tempting to send this two-letter reply if you're emailing from a phone, where typing a longer reply is more difficult – but some situations warrant waiting until you're back at a computer (or can talk in-person, which remains an option!). Emailing from a phone doesn't absolve you of your responsibility to think about how your message will come across.
5. Sending emails that are too long or aren't clear about what action you're requesting. If your emails read like a stream of consciousness or include every detail of a situation when your recipient only needs the upshot, chances are good that you're trying people's patience – and at this point in email's evolution, you might even come across as not understanding how most use email.
Effective emails in the workplace are usually short – meaning just a few short paragraphs, or a bulleted list if you're including lots of details. They're also crystal clear about what you'd like the recipient to do (approve something/give input/take action) or whether it's just an FYI. Bury that information, and your recipients are far less likely to do whatever it is you're asking of them.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.