Monday, April 1, 2013

Email Etiquette for the Workplace

Okay, I confess: that title might be a little misleading, because this post is most definitely a rant disguised as a self-help article. Just so we're clear.

The topic of today's rant is, in my opinion, one of the most handy communication tools which, ironically, often becomes a tool of non-communication. The beloved yet hated CC line. Yes, today we will be talking about when it is okay (even helpful!) to copy others on an email message, and when the CC line should be left blank.

Yes, I know this is groundbreaking.

But honestly, am I the only one who feels like some people don't get this? Part of being a professional is appropriately interacting with others. In my opinion, communication tools, such as email, should not facilitate avoiding difficult conversation. Nope. And the CC line, in my opinion, should not be used to indirectly relegate the responsibility to communicate to someone else.

Let's get down to some examples. Maybe, as you read these, you could think in your head whether or not you feel the CC line was utilized appropriately in each example. (Like a quiz! Yay!)

1. You discuss an issue with a supervisor, and he/she suggests you contact so-and-so to discuss ____. To keep your supervisor in the loop, and as a way of following up with him/her to let him/her know that you indeed made the agreed-upon contact, and also to allow him/her to add feedback or insert ideas as needed (wow! so many birds with one stone!), you copy him/her on the message.

2. You are not happy with someone's performance on a given task, but you hate confrontation. You know you could just walk down the hall, poke your head in your coworker's office, and politely ask to talk about what went down, but the thought of it just makes you queasy. Enter: the CC line! To avoid having to talk to your co-worker, and to appropriately intimidate him/her, you duck back into your office, compose your accusation thoughts into an email, and copy Mr. Boss. Perfect! Example, "Hey Cammie, you left your asparagus in the microwave. I find that to be very inconsiderate and disgusting. Please resolve this situation as soon as possible." Now your boss knows, and Cammie can clean up her mess, and you haven't even had to say a word.

3. Same as above, but instead of composing your accusations thoughts into a readable concern or idea, you pretend you are really confused and pose some kind of benign question. Example, "Hey Cammie, I noticed you left your asparagus in the microwave. I wasn't sure if you were gonna get to that later. Would you like me to put it back in the fridge for you?" Again, you cc: your boss. Again, you kill lots of birds with this one--not only do you alert your boss to the fact that Cammie is a nincompoop, but you also alert your boss to the fact that you are a HERO.

Full disclosure: it's a little embarrassing to write about this, because it is probably pretty obvious that I have been the one to feel slighted or embarrassed when a supervisor is copied on an email conversation. Otherwise, why would I have such strong feelings about this? And yes, in examples 2 and 3, Cammie should have put her asparagus in the fridge. But a small incident can feel pretty embarrassing when you realize someone felt the need to alert an authority.

I did a tiny bit of research just to make sure I wasn't totally off about this. This leadership blogger agrees that the cc line should be used sparingly (and also gives a helpful list of email etiquette pointers), and this communication skills blog has termed a new disease: CCitis. Thank you, google search, for validating my feelings.

And, since I made it sound like I was going to answer some questions about when to use vs. when not to use the CC line, here is my best shot at a simple rule of thumb. (This is my opinion only). You should use the CC line when you are sharing something you would share if you and your recipients were all in a room together, and if you feel the added insight from having a third party will somehow enhance the discussion. Generally, this kind of email is a discussion or problem-solving email, not a confrontation. This can be very effective and should improve relations and morale. You should not use the CC line when your primary motivation to do so is to avoid a stressful conversation, or to avoid confronting someone about something. A very considerate thing to do, in this situation, would be to speak first with your co-worker, letting him/her know you will take the issue to a supervisor if necessary, but that you wanted to try working it out together first.

What do you think? I'm sure one of you has had a great experience with the CC line, and I want to hear about it. Prove me wrong! Help me see the light! And of course, I'm always happy to hear from those of you who share my pain. Let's commiserate.



  1. You're right!

    Email is such an efficient way to communicate, but it also stresses me out. Sometimes I wish we all just called and faxed :)

  2. I use the CC: line to get people to do what they're suppose to all the time... its how it works here though! LOL.

  3. I have had people do this to me at work. I always reply to just them, taking the boss out the loop. I have always been commended for leaving him out of the loop. I think supervisors are very aware of why people do this, mine is, and does not think highly of the practice.
    Chad's cousin

  4. Rule of thumb: Using the cc line to tattle could be seen as a little passive-aggressive
    The queen of passive aggression


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