We spend a lot of time with email. Especially at work.
Email can be a great way to collaborate with people in different places and at different times but it can also be annoying, a waste of time, and even get you into trouble.
Knowing what to watch out for as you send and receive emails can save you a lot of hassle at your job. Emails that fall into these pitfalls usually have multiple violations.
If you can catch yourself from doing even one of these you can usually catch others you may have missed and save a lot of time, embarrassment, and even your job.
#1 – Wall o Words
Keep in mind that a lot of email is read on mobile devices, especially phones. If your email doesn’t have any white space on a single screen, you need to rethink your message.
When you greet people with a wall of words that’s the quickest way to have them hit “next”. You’re not writing prose for a short story here. You are communicating action items, reports, and ideas to other people.
Start with a 5 second summary of what action you are trying to get the person to take. If you are providing information, have a few bullet points or a small graphic that summarize what is in the email. THEN go into detail, or add an attachment with all of the long explanations.
#2 – Reply to all
Noooooooooooo! This one should go without saying yet it still happens. Learn the difference between the “Reply” and “Reply To All” buttons in whatever email program you are using both mobile and desktop. 99% of the time “Reply” is the right choice – only respond to the person who sent the email.
In those rare 1% cases where “reply to all” is the right choice, carefully look at the list of people and decide if all of them REALLY need to know what you’re about to say.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a “reply to all” DO NOT “reply to all” saying “remove me from this list” or whatever clever pun you’d like to share. Entire company email systems have been brought to a crawl from exploding “reply to all” messages.
It’s kind of like when you get added to an unwelcome group text. If you just ignore it, it will die on its own.
If you really feel strongly that you need to say something, just “reply” to the ONE person who sent it. I’m sure they already know their blunder so usually no need to rub salt in the wound, but if someone is a repeat offender they may need some education about what button to push next time.
#3 – Appropriate Audience
I was on a team who actually looked forward to emails from a certain individual because he gave so much detail about where he was going to be if he wasn’t in the office. We would get everything from narratives about broken swamp coolers and what aisle of Home Depot he would be on to detailed information about his upcoming medical visit.
That level of detail is fine for your manager, but the entire building doesn’t really need to know. Be careful about using distribution lists without checking who is actually on the list. You are usually better off making your own list of people who really need to know where you are if you’re not in the office. Everyone else can just wait until you get back or talk to your manager.
Also, go easy on the cc and bcc. I’ve found that if I’m trying to solve a problem it goes a lot faster when it’s just between me and one other person. The minute you start adding additional people (especially managers) things start to slow down and important details for solving the problem are left out because no one wants to look bad in front of others, especially their manager.
If you are not having much success getting a response then you may cc someone’s manager on the email, but use that with discretion. A lot of times it’s more effective to just pick up the phone and call the person if it’s really that urgent.
#4 – Gigantic image
Sometimes images are huge. File size huge. This makes it slow to download. It takes up space.
Scale images down before you add them as attachments or put them in docs / pdfs. Some of the biggest offenders I’ve seen are people making a flyer for the whole company that ends up being a 5 MB file when it could have been 1% of that size.
If it has to be that big of a file, put the file in a single location and send a link to it. Your system administrator will thank you.
#5 – Personal items
If you read your work email agreement there’s usually something in there about how all communication on company equipment or through company accounts may be monitored and is company property.
This is for real. Many companies are required to keep email archives around for years and they can do pretty much whatever they want with the messages.
Get a personal account for personal stuff. Period. If your work account gets hacked due to personal activity, that’s not a meeting I would want to be in.
If you leave the company your account is locked out and usually your manager has access to the account for a while. Do you really want them reading your personal correspondence? No matter how hard you try to let everyone know you’re no longer with the company, someone will send something to that old email. Much better if you’re the one keeping an eye on things during the transition than someone else.
#6 – Too much information
No one needs to know the details of your Dr. appointment. MAYBE your manager, but most of the time it is fine to just say you have an appointment and you are unavailable.
If you need to provide some sort of justification for the absence then that would be to one person, not to an entire list of people who really don’t want to hear about that weird thing growing on your back.
#7 – Forwarder
When you forward a message to someone new be aware of the whole conversation that is in that email. Cut out all of the extra information that the person you are bringing into the conversation does not need to know or should not know at all.
I’ve seen some pretty embarrassing comments that went back and forth between two people all of a sudden get paraded in front of dozens or even hundreds of people thanks to a forward.
#8 – Black hole
If someone is waiting on you for something urgent a simple “On it” reply can ease their mind so at least they know the message was received and you are working on it.
It can be tempting to wait to communicate until after you have fixed a problem so you can just report the good news, but it is much better to first let them know you are aware of the problem and are working on it.
Information = calm
Silence = mad
#9 – Making a Mountain of Molehill
Sometimes you may get an oddball request about some minor thing. I once saw an email (sent to waaay to many people – remember multiple violations?) about something that was broken on the company website. It was a pretty simple fix so the person could have just said, “Ok, thanks. We’ll get that updated today.” End of story.
INSTEAD they chose to go into this giant explanation about how they were re-doing a bunch of stuff and it was going to take 6 months to address the issue.
Yeah, that landed them on the wrong radar and they won a weekly progress meeting with a not-so-pleasant executive to resolve the issue.
First, replying back to just the one person could have saved some heartache here.
Second, this wasn’t the time or place to parade their giant 6-month plan. There was a simple problem that only required a simple solution. Do the simple solution and be on your way.
#10 – Return receipt
Are you going to do anything different knowing whether someone opened an email or not? At the end of the day, probably not. Maybe you’ll invent some story about how that person is such a jerk because they have opened the email but not done anything yet.
You have better things to do at work than worry whether someone opened your message or not. If they haven’t responded for a while, chances are they didn’t open it or it was too hard to read or just not a priority.
Again, pick up the phone and have a conversation if it’s really urgent, otherwise, don’t worry about it.
#11 – Vacation responder
Make sure you turn it off when you get back. These are questionable because your immediate team should know that you’re gone, and anyone who may need to contact you can probably wait.
Some programs allow you to only send the response to people within your organization to prevent some random spammer finding out that you’re out of town for 2 weeks.
Also, no need to brag about that cool cruise you are taking or that you are skydiving. A simple response is fine.
“I will be out of the office until <date>. Please contact <other person> if you need assistance.”
#12 – Duh
Don’t forward dumb stuff. Just don’t. Whether it’s a pyramid scheme or a questionable image, of just time-wasting nonsense.
If you get something questionable report it to your IT security department or simply trash it WITHOUT opening it.
The worst thing you could do with a suspicious email is to forward it to the whole company saying, “Did anyone else get this? It looks weird.”
Sound unreal? I’ve seen it happen. That person was the hacker’s best friend – they just provided 1000’s of more chances for someone to open their virus.
That could earn you a one-way walk out the front door.
What other email pitfalls do you avoid? Share in the comments below.