There’s a fair chance during the past year you’ve been wading through an increase in emails while so many of us have been working and learning remotely. And while many organisations transition to a blend of face-to-face and remote working, email remains a critical communication channel.

So after a quarter-century of tolerating bad email etiquette – and the feelings that they induce from fear, to frustration, to rage and paralysis – it’s time to call it out and stamp it out. This can take some real leadership qualities including accountability, empathy and transparency.

Workplace relations expert and VU postgraduate business course chair Dr Selvi Kannan says during periods of uncertainty, it’s crucial to get emails right.

“With so many of us working in remote and hybrid models – communicating clearly, succinctly and respectfully has never been more important.”

Here’s our top 5 email blunders, and some helpful hints if you’re on the receiving end (or are even thinking of sending one).

How many do you recognise, and would you diffuse – or detonate?!

1. An email that should have been a meeting

But hang on, don’t the experts say, “If you can say it in an email, you don’t need a meeting”? Indeed, they do! However, an email should never replace a necessary conversation, particularly when it includes complicated concepts or more than 3-4 points or actions.

Working remotely, we’ve also become more reliant on written communications thanks to our growing Zoom gloom.

Sometimes a long email could be due to a fear of confrontation. If this is the case, keep it short – or take a deep breath and make a call or knock on the door/partition. Emails just need to be clear about what you actually want, by when, and why.

What to do if this happens to you

If you receive an email-essay, call and ask if you can talk it through if a meeting is out of the question. Otherwise, set the tone of efficiency, respond briefly and address any points you’re unsure about.

Keep it brief or pick up the phone!

2. Carbon-copy crimes

If you’re thinking of CCing superiors to an email – either in a reply or as a new message, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Is the motive to expose someone’s misstep, when it could result in public humiliation?

One of the best reasons to CC superiors is when you’re thanking or congratulating someone for a job well done. Don’t use emails (or anything else!) to bring someone down. Pick up the phone, email individually or – only if it’s an issue that can’t be addressed directly – speak to their superior.

A second common misuse of the CC function is to add someone to a pre-existing email thread with an expectation that they use it to ‘catch up’ or treat that as a brief. The purpose of the Carbon-Copy function is intended as an FYI only, so don’t expect any action to be taken by a CC’d party.

What to do if this happens to you

Respond separately or pick up the phone and request the issue be taken offline. If they don’t get the message maybe it’s time to escalate (NB: not via email with a bunch of CCs of course!).

Carbon-copy emails: handle with care!

3. Beginning an email without a salutation

This may seem trivial but this tiny courtesy goes a long way. It takes roughly 0.01 seconds to write, “Hi’, “Dear”, “Greetings” or a simple “G’day” before a recipient’s name at the beginning of an email. And the difference is astonishing.

It’s the difference between feeling like you’re being chastised, and being addressed as an equal.

Of course, different channels do require varied formalities. For instance, you may not need a greeting at all for a message on Slack, Messenger or WhatsApp.

What to do if this happens to you

Respond cheerily. It works. It may feel a little reminiscent of the upcoming point 4, but sometimes you have to take these measures.

4. Passive aggressive tone

Ever received any of these beauties?

“Per my last email”, “As previously stated…” or “How can we avoid this in future?”

And adding smiley emojis isn’t fooling anyone.

As Dr Kannan says, it’s important to be sensitive of people’s feelings – and now more than ever.

“When we communicate face-to-face, we rely heavily on visual cues and body language. In written communications such as emails, lack of tone can be problematic. Good managers and effective communicators will be considerate of others’ feelings and ensure staff know they’re supported.”

What to do if this happens to you?

Professional politeness is always an appropriate response. But if you feel intimidated, uncomfortable or it impacts your ability to perform your role, it's time to report it to a superior, a mediator (e.g. human resources) or a work counsellor.

Sometimes you just have to laugh it off.

5. Radio silence

So you emailed someone two weeks ago and heard nothing. You’ve already tried the old faithful, “Just following up…”

Meanwhile, you’re CCd on several other emails they’ve sent, so you’re left to assume you’re low on their priorities and you don’t warrant a response.

Your self-worth is diminishing and frustration is simmering.

Dr Kannan says:

“When people don’t respond to your emails, it can naturally make you feel unimportant and start to think you’re unworthy of a response. It shows poor communication and demonstrates a lack of basic respect.”

What to do if this happens to you?

Consider there might be other things at play. Perhaps they’re taking time to provide a considered response. Maybe they actually forgot (we're all human). Or perhaps they’re just inconsiderate! Try that trusty telephone again, and if that fails it might be time to escalate – just sense check back to Point 1.

When "Just following up", just doesn't work.

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