Business Email Etiquette

Ian Hellström | 13 March 2020 | 4 min read

It’s a familiar situation: you’ve spent the better part of an hour crafting an email with all relevant background information and various suggestions before you hit ‘Send’. A day goes by. Then another. You wonder, “Did no one read it?” The truth is: somebody probably did, but none of the recipients were inclined to go through your magnum opus. Too bad, but not entirely unavoidable. Here is my business email etiquette guide to make it easier for recipients to reciprocate with ‘Reply’.

When I say ‘my’ email etiquette guide, I really mean whatever I pilfered and subsequently tweaked over the years, wondering why well-crafted emails often got the cold shoulder.

People prefer to do things if these are easy and in their self-interest. It’s the kernel of the often implied question, “What’s in it for me?” While it may not always be possible to rephrase every request to suit someone else’s agenda, you can make your emails less of a drag on recipients.

Subject Line

Recipients must be able to make a quick call on whether to click or leave an email for later. The only way they can make such an assessment based on the subject line alone is if it is concise. An option is to prefix subject lines with labels:

Prefix Description Example
[ACTION] recipient needs to take action [ACTION] Fix leaky coffee maker in team area
[DECISION] recipient needs to make a decision [DECISION] Summer vacation plans
[INFO] no action or response needed [INFO] Notes from XYZ 2020 conference
[REVIEW] recipient needs to review [REVIEW] ML guidelines for UX design

These prefixes are from the recipient’s point of view. It is why I do not list a separate label for requests, because a request is what the sender has; the recipient needs to make a decision on said request or answer the sender’s question.

A verb follows the [ACTION] prefix, so a message that asks the recipient for an answer starts with ‘[ACTION] Answer’. Yes, it is a bit more transactional without the ‘please’.

Why do I have both action and review? Reviews require a different state of mind than requests to fix a bug or come up with a presentation for an event. It is easier on the recipient to see whether an email implies writing (e.g. coding, creating documents or presentations) or critical reading (e.g. reviewing code or proposals). It’s the difference between how to make something work and verifying that it works as intended and fits into the overall architecture.

Note that prefixes allow people to set up simple filters or rules to make it easier to go through loads of emails. Whether you prefer to have these in ALL CAPS or without the square brackets but a dash instead is immaterial. As long as you are consistent.

Addressee(s)

If you want one recipient to act (e.g. answer a question), why have you CC’d five other people who do not need to reply. Maybe they need to be informed of the outcome, but why can’t that happen separately?

You ask a question, the recipient answers, and afterwards you inform the people who need the final answer with an [INFO] email. Yes, that means two emails for you, but for both recipient groups it is a single message (or thread) each. The person who answered the question does not need to be informed of their own words. And those who need the answer don’t need to be privy to a meandering thread of hopefully monotonically increasing levels of clarity.

Too many addressees make ‘Reply all’ a nuissance.

Body

Invert the order of the message in the body: lead with the need, bottom line up front (BLUF) in military lingo, or TL;DR in internet vernacular. If you start with the main request, you can often trim a lot of fluff.

Thoughts are predominantly jumbled when you start typing an email. Either you have to edit a lot afterwards, or you send a mixture of questions, ideas, and notes to the recipient. Few people leave an email for later editing, which means they send a convoluted mess of words to recipients in the hope that they will wade through the sender’s stream of consciousness. Quite frankly, “Ain’t nobody got no time for that shit.”

Emails that require an action must include a clear date by which the action is supposed to be done. The body is best, because the subject line can easily be truncated depending on the device the email is read on. I am generally not a fan of calendar reminders as they are too intrusive and too easily ignored anyway. It’s also a matter of personal preference whether people use their calendars to follow up on emails. Many do not.

Signature

My email signature includes the line ‘Ian Hellström [he/his/him]’. If I, a cisgender man, include my preferred pronouns in every email, it makes it slightly easier for transgender people to do the same.

My international business phone number is always included because people may be abroad, on a mobile device where it can be nearly impossible to look it up, or it may be difficult to do so anyway, especially for coworkers with disabilities.

For internal emails my signature is just that: a name, preferred pronouns, and a phone number. No one needs to see their own company logo, an address including department’s disused fax no one knows how to operate anyway, an inspirational quotation, or a “think before you print” reminder in every single message. That said, the rules may be different for external emails, particularly in Germany.

Best regards,

Ian Hellström [he/his/him].