7 On-the-Job Email Blunders (and What to Send Instead)
It’s Friday afternoon at 4:45 p.m. You’ve had enough coffee to energize a family of sloths, but your caffeine buzz is starting to wear off. Suddenly, a message from a co-worker pops up in your inbox, flagged red and screaming at you with the subject line, “URGENT”. You open it. Someone on another team has a last-minute request, but it’s more like an order—and the email itself isn’t worded kindly.
Whether it’s harshly worded emails, mistakenly hitting “reply all,” or participating in a long back-and-forth email chain rivaling “A Dance with Dragons,” we’ve all been guilty of email etiquette missteps. Rather than being malicious, they’re usually due to a lack of communication, judgment, awareness, or time. Unfortunately, poor email etiquette can raise anxiety, create barriers to progress, harm relationships, and lead to misunderstandings and larger workplace issues.
While we can’t reach through the computer and “take back” an email, the good news is that we can learn from our mistakes—and try a fresh approach the next time we hit “send.”
Read on for 7 common email etiquette missteps—and a more effective approach to take for each:
1. Writing a novel.
Your friends love your vibrant storytelling, but that doesn’t mean Bob in accounting wants to read “The Odyssey” when he simply asked you for a work-trip invoice. Long, drawn-out anecdotes are better saved for sharing over dinner with friends. Keep your emails professional, courteous, and digestible.
What to do instead: A good question to ask before you hit “send” is, “Could my colleagues read this through on a break between meetings and have sufficient time to digest it and respond?” If not, it may be an issue better fit for a phone call or face-to-face conversation.
With this said, crafting a thoughtful, in-depth email response is sometimes completely appropriate—and appreciated. If you need to send a longer email, organize the email in a way that helps the other person grasp your concepts and moves the conversation forward. Follow up this type of email with a calendar invite to discuss on the phone or in person. Remember that whether it’s a brief, succinct response or a long reply, the point of your email should be to keep a project or conversation moving forward.
2. Sending one-word replies.
One-word responses are the other extreme of sending the email equivalent of a novel. Imagine taking the time to craft a thoughtful email, complete with bullet points and next steps, only to get a response of “OK” (see also: “Yes.” and “No.”) They’re sometimes more appropriate in the rapid-fire environment of IMs, but can rub people the wrong way in an email. Though one-word answers may seem efficient to the person sending the email, they can come off as dismissive or even downright rude to the recipient.
What to do instead: If you have the type of relationship with a coworker in which you send these types of responses to each other, and it works for both of you, keep doing what you’re doing. Email isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, so consider your recipient and their work style and personality before you send any email—particularly if you’re new to emailing each other. Above all, be respectful and courteous, and before you hit “send,” think, “Would I be offended or slighted if I received this email?” If so, how could it be rephrased in a more positive or thoughtful way?
3. Replying all.
The CEO just sent an overview of the all-company call quarterly update. Before you know it, your fingers are typing “Right on!” and hitting “send.” Aside from the fact that “Right on!” isn’t a sentiment you need to share with the entire company, replying all to a companywide email isn’t appropriate in most company cultures. Whether you’re selecting “reply all” to an email from the boss to you and your team of five, or to a company of 5,000, it can be disruptive and start a chain reaction of responses.
What to do instead: A good rule of thumb before making a workplace decision is to ask yourself, “Will this add value to others’ experience? Will the value this adds outweigh any distraction or disruption it may cause?” If the answer is no, the answer is simple. If your answer is yes, then you must decide on the best medium for your contribution. Should it really be an all-company email, or even an email in the first place? Perhaps it should be a small group discussion, a lunch chat with a select few, or a private conversation with your hiring manager. The best decision isn’t always your first inclination.
Mistakes happen, and if you accidentally “reply all,” first pick your jaw up off the floor, then sincerely and quickly apologize to the unintended recipients and move on. For a companywide send, it’s generally best to not “reply all” again with an apology. Talk to your boss privately if necessary, and don’t draw more attention to a situation that many recipients may not have seen or thought much of in the first place.
4. Being a lazy correspondent.
Responding to an email thoughtlessly for the mere reason of checking it off your list, or sending half-baked questions when your answers could be found with a bit of Googling or digging around on your own, may be doing more damage to your credibility than you realize. You may be gaining a reputation as an over-emailer, or even—gasp!—a lazy correspondent.
What to do instead: Responding to emails can take a huge chunk of someone’s time during the workday, so before firing off your next email, try taking a more thoughtful approach.
- By putting in some time and effort upfront to conduct your own research, you may be able to find a solution to the issue on your own. If not, you’ll at least be able to put your email into a more meaningful context. It’s a better use of your time and, perhaps more importantly, a more respectful use of the recipient’s time.
- For moments of inspiration, lingering work-related questions, or helpful insights that could benefit the team, keep a notebook at your desk designated specifically for this purpose (and bring it to meetings!).Review it weekly, if not daily. Rather than sharing through frequent one-off emails, consider sharing at a future team meeting, in a one-on-one with your manager, or in the occasional email that clearly lists your ideas, with a follow-up meeting on the calendar to discuss in more detail.
5. Keeping an email chain going too long.
You’ve spent the morning responding to Marie, who responded to you, after you responded to her, after she wrote you… Are you seeing a pattern here? Half the day has been invested in an email chain in which you both seem to be spinning your wheels.
What to do instead: End the email chain nicely but firmly, and try to jump on the phone or schedule a meeting. “Hi Marie —You have valid and interesting ideas on this, and I want to give this conversation the time it deserves (without hindering our other deadlines). I just sent you a meeting request for (date, time). Let me know if that works, or feel free to send me an updated meeting time. In the meantime, I’ll send over a few bulleted items for us to cover in our meeting, based on the issues you’ve laid out in your email. Thanks!” You’ll both be relieved to end the game of email tag, and your face-to-face conversation will likely be much more productive, friendly, and efficient.
6. Unnecessarily creating urgency or panic.
Work emergencies arise, and they can strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest employees. Sometimes they’re legitimate, but more often than not, they’re sent because you or someone else hasn’t sufficiently prepared for a deadline or has misjudged the scope of a project, and putting an “URGENT” label on an email seems like the best approach to rally the troops and get the job done.
How to handle: If you’re guilty of doing this, be aware of becoming the boy or girl who cried wolf. Once in a while, a true emergency may come up, in which you need all hands on deck. Use this designation for those true emergencies, not for when you have a meeting time change request, or you discover the vending machine is out of order.
And if a situation is truly urgent, avoid using the email subject line “URGENT.” Instead, opt for an attention-getting subject line that’s effective without putting the recipient on the defense, such as “Game Plan for ABC Client, Who Needs Project Z Today.” As you write your email, remember that your coworker is on your team, and frame your content with this in mind. Be kind, and ask what you can take off their plate if you’re waiting for a deliverable from them. After sending your email, immediately set up a follow-up meeting or call those who need to be involved to lay out the situation in more detail, assign action items, and clear any obstacles.
By setting expectations upfront with all parties as urgent situations pop up, you’ll avoid problems later on.
7. Burning the midnight oil.
No one likes to wake up to check their work email inbox, only to discover that a coworker—or, even worse, the boss—has sent a slew of messages in the middle of the night. Studies have shown that the mere expectation of answering work emails at night is enough to lead to anxiety issues and poor mental health. Sending that email when the only thing on TV is a salesperson showing off a Glow in the Dark Cheese Grater™ may not only be harmful to your health, but also to the health of your coworkers.
What to do instead: If you’re a night owl, consider preparing a few draft emails and waiting to hit “send” until you get to the office (but beware of bombarding someone with multiple emails at once, which also can cause undue anxiety). Better yet, shut down your computer at night once you’re finished with work, and don’t check work email or respond to messages until your workday starts the next morning. The general rule of thumb here is: unless lives are at stake, it can wait until morning.
Remember that email is just one tool in your toolbox
Email is a useful tool, but it can be restrictive, especially when it comes to interpreting tone and intention. Taking those few extra moments to think things through before deciding how to craft an email (or whether to do so in the first place) will result in better projects, outcomes, and relationships.
When it doubt, get on the phone or grab a coffee with a coworker to chat. You’ll get a much quicker pulse check that way, and the relationship-building that comes from quality in-person time can’t be replicated with a coffee-cup emoji sent via email.
About Signature Consultants, LLC
Headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Signature Consultants was established in 1997 with a singular focus: to provide clients and consultants with superior staffing solutions. For the ninth consecutive year, Signature was voted as one of the “Best Staffing Firms to Work For” and is named the 15th Largest IT Staffing Firm in the United States (source: Staffing Industry Analysts). With 29 locations throughout North America, Signature annually deploys thousands of consultants to support, run, and manage their clients’ technology needs. Signature offers IT staffing, consulting, managed solutions, and direct placement services. For more information on the company, please visit https://www.sigconsult.com. Signature Consultants is the parent company to Hunter Hollis and Madison Gunn.