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Guidelines for Avoiding Email Battles

On a somewhat regular basis, EctoHR helps clients with employee relations challenges where the misuse of email or poor email etiquette has played a fairly significant role. While most professional jobs require near continuous use of email, very few people have ever had training or formal coaching on the appropriate use of email.   Through both client and personal experience, EctoHR has found that the following guidelines may help avoid the most common issues involving email communication.

Email may not be the best means of communication for certain situations

If an issue is sensitive or urgent, email is likely not the best way to communicate it.  Picking up the phone to have a conversation, or better yet, going to the person for a face-to-face conversation is likely the best option for difficult or significant matters. Studies indicate that non-verbal communication factors, such as tone, inflection and body language, account for 92% of the message that a person interprets from another person. This means that the words alone account for only 8% of the message, leaving email with a huge void in terms of its ability to effectively capture the true essence of an issue. Additionally, research shows that emails written with a positive tone are typically interpreted as neutral and emails with a neutral tone are interpreted as negative. Clearly then, an email that is negative in nature will be perceived as really bad!

Participating an in-person meeting can avoid misunderstandings that are likely to happen via email. Email then becomes a great follow-up tool after a conversation, providing a way to confirm the important details of the conversation, any agreement or action plan for moving forward, and to ensure that both people are on the same page.

Excessive or Unnecessary “CC’s” may create hard feelings, in addition to inefficiency

There are many times where people are carbon copied appropriately, ensuring that someone else is in the loop on an issue. At the same time, CC’ing people may have the effect of creating lack of clarity on who is responsible for an issue, in addition to possible making the recipient feel that he or she is being publicly scolded or embarrassed if the subject of the email is sensitive or critical in nature.

As a general rule, CC should only be used as an FYI tool for those in the CC line. Putting someone in the CC line typically implies that he or she must only read the email and is not the direct recipient and does not need to take a direct action.

Should the issue be critical, negative, or otherwise potentially sensitive, senders should remember that each additional person makes the issue more public and potentially embarrasses the recipient or the person about whom the issue is critical or negative.

Clarity should be the aim (while remembering both items above!)

Unclear emails can only be blamed on the sender, versus the receiver’s interpretation. A good email does not leave the recipient guessing what the sender really means, what action needs to be taken, or anything else.

Clearly identifying who the message is to (see item #2 above) and what action is required, if any, is key to effective email communication. Additional recommendations include:

  • Use bullet points for ease of reading (especially in light of the fact that many emails are read on a small smart phone screen!)
  • Identify action items both in the subject line and in the text of the email.
  • Use bold or color when appropriate, but avoid creating something that looks like blotter art.
  • Clearly spell out any deadlines or next steps.

Email is more than just the words used.

While item #1 indicates that email does not allow for many of the critical communication elements that in-person or verbal communication does, there are certainly methods for capturing the essence or tone of the communication via email. Examples include:

  • WRITING IN ALL CAPS IS NOT ADVISABLE. Most people consider the use of all capital letters to be considered ‘screaming’ in an email. CAPS should be reserved for content that needs to stand out or be highlighted and there are better ways yet to do accomplish this. As a general rule, WRITING IN ALL CAPS RARELY MAKES SENSE.
  • Emoticons can help, within reason. A J can help offset a comment that may be perceived as snarky. Excessive use is not likely appropriate for business-related communication though and should be reserved for situations where the sender and recipient have prior experience communicating via email.
  • Over-punctuation can be as much of a problem as under-punctuation. While the writer does need to keep the mood of the message in mind, over punctuating with exclamation points (!!!) can convey a message that lacks professionalism or leads back to the recipient interpreting the message as more negative or urgent than it needs to be.

For help in addressing your most challenging employee issues (including email bullies!), contact an EctoHR, Inc. HR professional today! Our team can be reached at or 810.534.0170.


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