Nine practical email guidelines

Nine practical email guidelines

Poorly used email is a significant source of problems for staff.

The aim of issuing email guidance on email is to improve the way that people communicate. However, an email policy helps only if people think about and apply the guidelines sensibly in their working lives.

The guidance is not a formal code that applies exclusively to the use of email, but a set of good practice. It also sets up expectations about how email should be used for good effective communication.

Email can be a tremendously effective way of sharing information and managing work across a large organisation. However if it’s badly used, it can clog up people’s time and systems.

At the heart of good email practice is this: think clearly about why you are sending the email and what you are asking people to do.

This email guidance is set out under nine headings:

  1. Reducing the number of emails in circulation
  2. Sending emails to the right people
  3. Making email content and action clear
  4. Using email to send documents
  5. Forwarding and replying to emails
  6. Managing your own emails
  7. Email writing style
  8. Legal issues
  9. Security issues

1. Reducing the number of emails in circulation

  • Do you want to reduce the number of emails you get? A good start is to reduce the number you send.
  • Think before you send an email. Is it the best way to communicate? Would it be easier to phone or meet in person?
  • Think about putting up information on your website or on news and event platforms.
  • Restrict your use of email mailing lists to messages about suitable, relevant business – however interesting and/or worthwhile your activities outside may be.
  • Think before replying to or forwarding an email. Do you really need to reply at all, or send it on?
  • If you find yourself getting into a repetitive email dialogue, consider two things: cut out copy recipients, and try speaking in person instead.
  • Make sure that people copied in actually need to know what is being sent. Email makes copying messages too easy: don’t copy people in “just in case”.
  • When replying don’t send a “reply to all”, unless it is necessary for all copy recipients to know your response.
  • Unless the email asks for an acknowledgement, don’t send one.

2. Sending emails to the right people

  • Mailing lists provide useful groups to target messages to the right people, but don’t misuse them by emailing with a ‘scattergun’ approach.
  • If you are sending an email to a person, e.g. ‘head of department’, state so in your email. That will help them to organise and manage emails more effectively. (See step 3 on making email content clear.)
  • Don’t use ‘heads of department’ as post boxes. People should be asked to cascade information only if they themselves need to know the information first, or have useful context to add in sending it on to their teams.
  • If you want all staff in a certain section to receive an email, use the appropriate mailing list or speak to the head of the department or business and see what the most effective communication route is.

3. Making email content and action clear

  • Make clear in the body of the text to whom the email is being sent and to whom it is being copied, especially if it is sent to people because of their role or their involvement in a group. This tends to be because it’s not always clear from email addresses which people are being sent the email, and when emails are forwarded or copied, the email address lists don’t always get included.
  • The expectation is that emails are being sent “to” people who must take some sort of action. The “cc” is for people who need to know about this. Anyone else shouldn’t be included.
  • Make clear whether the email is sent for action or information and what the recipient is being asked to do and by when.
  • Make clear in the subject title of the email exactly what the subject is. Avoid multiple topics in the body of the message that don’t match the title.
  • If you really need to know an email has been received and read, ask for confirmation.
  • It is common practice (especially in customer service) for contact details to be given at the base of the email so people are clear who you are and can contact you, other than by email. These contact details should include job title and phone number.

4. Using email to send documents

  • Unless they are genuinely urgent, consider sending formal documents in hard copy. People get exactly what you want in the right order and may well be more likely to read, digest and understand what you are saying.
  • Think about using the web as an alternative to mount the document for access, or set up file-sharing methods (i.e. Dropbox, WeTransfer etc.)
  • Think before you send something short as an attachment. It may be more effective to put the content in the email itself, so that recipients can read it easily.
  • If you have to send attachments, identify as clearly as possible what attachments are being sent.

5. Forwarding and replying to emails

  • Think before you forward emails that you have received. They may contain information that is confidential or expressly for you only.
  • When replying to emails, think before amending or editing text that you have been sent. It may be that quoting only part of the message is sensible. It may be easier for others reading the thread to see the full flow of the message exchanges.
  • When replying to an email seeking to set up a meeting, don’t use ‘reply to all’: recipients don’t need to know the intimate state of your diary.
  • When replying to emails, try to scan the reply to eliminate unneeded text such as repeat addresses. Include your signature immediately below the text you are writing.
  • When forwarding or replying to emails, follow the same rules as you would for initiating an email, e.g. make clear to whom you are sending it and what action is needed. Also make sure the subject is the appropriate one.

6. Managing your own emails

  • Consider working on email only at set times during the day. Even if you don’t, make allowance for people who do this: don’t expect instant replies.
  • Delete emails or move them to folders as soon as you have read them. If you can’t, mark them as important to return to later.
  • When you are on leave or unable to read email, set-up an auto-reply message. That information should make clear who can be contacted in your absence.

7. Email writing style

  • Keep messages short and to the point. Keep paragraphs and sentences short: they are easier to read.
  • Do not treat email like spoken communication. Email is a more informal medium than memos or letters, but it lacks the signals and clues that spoken language contains.
  • Avoid using UPPER CASE, as it looks as if you are SHOUTING. Asterisks around a word are an *easy* way to add emphasis, if needed.
  • Capitals could be used in exceptional circumstances where it is the only reasonable way of commenting on an email point by point.
  • Once drafted, it’s a good idea to re-read your email before you press ‘send’.

8. Legal issues and email

  • Laws relating to written communications apply to email messages.
  • Email should not be used for frivolous, abusive or defamatory purposes: emails are actionable within the laws of defamation.
  • Emails can constitute harassment and be used as evidence of such.

9. Security issues

  • Unless using encryption techniques, all email is insecure. Anything you record in an email may be read by others. Take great care when considering sending out personal, confidential or sensitive information by email.
  • Unless you are certain about the authenticity of an email, do not act on its content as it could contain a virus or be fraudulent.
  • Never disclose confidential information – such as passwords – in response to an email message.