I will always remember the first time a confidential email I did not want shared was sent to a group of people who were not the intended audience. At the time, I was new to my role as Dean of Online Education and was included in an email discussion among the academic leadership team surrounding an emailed proposal from a committee. I provided a thorough response, outlining what I really liked about the proposal and additionally highlighting my concerns and lingering questions.
In an attempt to respond to my comment, someone on the leadership team accidentally “replied all” to the original committee members that had emailed the proposal, and that group was then privy to the entire email thread. My contribution to the email thread had a more direct tone than I would have used if responding directly to the committee, but I was at least glad that my response was professional and that I was confident in my response. But the horror of that moment—of realizing something I’d written in confidence was shared with an audience who might be offended after working so diligently to prepare the proposal—was a pivotal moment in my email communication style.
In the years since that email debacle, I developed a set of guidelines I like to follow when it comes to professional email communication. They have come in particularly handy as my career progressed and I often had to make high-impact decisions and share various data scenarios within the systems we used—like FAST! So, during this time when we are all communicating than normal via digital technology, I thought it might be helpful to share my list with you.
Pretend that everything you are sharing via email will be published in the newspaper. After my earlier email debacle, I started pretending that all my emails would be shared publicly. Sure, sometimes we all need to vent, but try and do so over drinks with a colleague after work or in a private meeting, but there is no need to spell it out in an email.
Only send sensitive information via email if you must. Over the course of my career, there have been many times when I ran various enrollment reports and budget scenarios. Call me paranoid, but I usually prefer either putting the data on a thumb drive and walking it over to the requester or sharing it as an attachment within the FAST Communication Centre. Early enrollment reports can look dire, when in reality, an Admissions event was moved up a week, skewing early numbers. Similarly, financial planning scenarios can be scary and misunderstood if they end up in someone’s inbox without context.
Avoid sending the message in the subject line. A faculty member I used to work with was notorious for doing this—the subject line would read something like “Can you create a new Blackboard course for ENG207?” and the actual body of the email would simply include his signature line. The problem? It was challenging to read anything after the first few words in the subject line without opening the email in a separate window or scrolling through the subject line itself, reading one word at a time.
Don’t belabor sensitive topics via email. Have you ever heard the saying, “that meeting could have been an email”? Me too, and often that assessment is spot on. Until it is not and those on your email thread start dissecting a topic that starts splintering. I’m sure you’ve seen this happen—you are on a group email with 5-6 others, one person emails you and says, “I’m replying only to you.” The next thing you know, you have four different versions of the email thread to keep track of. This is when you know you have an email that needs to be a meeting. Get everyone together and talk it out.
Check your recipients. Are you using the correct email? Is the spelling accurate? Did you forget to include anyone? Is the wrong Janet on there? It only takes a few seconds to check this box and it is well worth it in the end.
Use blind copy with abundant caution. There is a lot of risk in this tricky little feature. Sometimes it is appropriate—perhaps you want your assistant to know about the meeting you are setting up, but he doesn’t need to be involved in the rest of the thread; or more likely, you want the Dean of Students to document your email to a student. But usually this signals some sneakiness on your part and poses the added risk that the blind copied recipient might accidentally reply all, not realizing they were supposed to be the silent part of a conversation.
Respond accordingly to unprofessional emails. This one is tough. A colleague you might also consider a friend sends you a raucous email—perhaps it is an inappropriate meme or perhaps they are ripping on a mutual colleague. I’ve had more of these land in my inbox than I care to recall. Depending on the content, you can simply respond and say something like “Please do not send me these kinds of emails. I find this unprofessional and out of line.” If the content violates an anti-discrimination law or is especially inappropriate, you are required to report it and I recommend that you do.
Avoid using your phone to respond to work emails.Hopefully, all of your emails are sent with empathy and consideration of audience, but no matter what, it is surprisingly easy to think you are responding to only one person when there are actually 15 others in the “To” field. It is also easy to want to reply with a one- or two-word response as though texting but remember that email will soon appear in someone’s Outlook inbox. Responding with a simple “Sure” to someone’s thoughtful email communication might be considered flippant on your part.
In the end, email is an invaluable tool, but it is easy to misuse it or get yourself (or someone else) into hot water. There will always be exceptions to the above guidelines, but I value these as my go-to list when deciding whether to hit Send. To learn more about FAST’s Communication Centre or to share your own tips on top-notch email rhetoric, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Erika Veth
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