8 formal email etiquette tips you should remember

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Do you write a lot of emails at work?

Aside from phone calls, it’s one of the most common ways to send out and receive information. To help you write clear, professional and pleasant emails, here are eight easy tips you can follow:

  1. Be brief and concise

    A formal email is formatted like a letter. It is usually composed of a greeting, body and closing. However, it should not be as long as a letter. Keep it to a maximum of two to three short paragraphs. Your paragraph should consist of one to three short sentences. As much as possible, state your main message in the top half of your email. Do this by using simple words and going straight to the point. Having said this, be careful about sounding blunt or robotic. Go for a tone that is conversational, friendly and respectful (see a great example here: How to write business emails that sound friendly by Brenda Hazzard).

    Watch the video below to learn common expressions that you can use in your emails:

    5 useful email expression, EngVid

    Tip: When writing an extremely important email like a job application or a reply to your boss, send it to yourself first. It will allow you to check format errors and get an idea of how your recipient will see your message. This can help you edit the email better. Also, don’t use emojis and all caps in a professional email. You want to sound friendly but not casual.

  2. Indicate the right recipient

    Double-check your recipient’s email address before sending. Make sure that it is the right one. If you are replying to an email, be careful about hitting “send all,” unless you want everyone on the “To” line to read the email. Remember that busy people will not appreciate an email that has no information they can act on or use.

    Learn the proper use of the To, CC, and BCC fields:

    • To – This is where you place the email address of the main recipient or recipients. In this field, include only those you require action from.
    • CC (carbon copy) – You add people in the CC line if you want to inform them about the subject, but they do not need to act or reply. Just to emphasize, if you have been cc’d, you do not need to reply.
    • BCC (Blind carbon copy) – There are two instances when you can use this field: 1) if you are sending an email to many people who need the same information but you do not want them to see each other’s email addresses; and/or 2) in sensitive situations where you don’t want the main recipient to see that there are others included in the conversation. For example, if you are in training and dealing with your first customer via email, your manager may request to be in the BCC to know how you are handling the transaction and see if you need support (especially if it is a difficult customer).

    Tip: Some people CC the boss of a person they’re sending an email to thinking that it will guarantee immediate action. Avoid doing this unless you were asked or there was a clear agreement to do so. This can undermine the recipient’s authority and make them feel less trusted.

  3. Write a clear subject line

    “Hello” or “Hey there” are vague and informal. The subject line should tell the recipient what your message is about. Keep it short and simple like for example, “Request for a meeting” or “Project X deadlines.” It does not need it to be catchy unless you are selling something.

    Tip: Don’t write the subject line in all caps. Your email is likely to be marked as spam. Also, avoid writing URGENT! or marking your email as such. You will seem self-important or become branded as an attention-seeker. If you need immediate feedback or action, make a phone call instead of emailing.

  4. Attach appropriate files

    Make sure that the file you’re sending is compatible with your recipient’s software. Check if it is virus-free and it’s not bigger than 5 MB. Compress or zip larger files, then attach. Better yet send it via a file sharing site (e.g. Google Drive, Dropbox, among others) to prevent clogging up their inbox.

    Tip: Label your files clearly. This means making the file name self-evident and easy to understand (for example, TChanresume.doc or Project_brief_final.pdf). This also prevents you from sending the wrong files or their unedited (or earlier) versions. If you are sending several files, keep them in one folder in your computer. It will be easier to look for them when composing your email.

  5. Forwarding emails

    When forwarding an email, add a short note or explanation why you are sending it. You can also delete some elements that the recipient doesn’t need to see, like other recipients’ email addresses, especially if it’s a long list.

    Tip: Avoid forwarding chain emails, suspicious marketing emails, unverified information or those that do not have professional value (jokes, stories, trivia, etc.). These would just clutter your colleagues’ inboxes.

  6. Proofread before sending

    Read through your email to check spelling, grammar, or missing words. Double check important names, figures and attachments. Also, see if you are using the appropriate font and font-size. Rushing often results in poorly worded and error-riddled messages. Remember, your email is part of your work and is a reflection of your professionalism.

    Tip: Don’t write the recipient’s address on the “To” line while composing the email. Add it only after you have checked your email and proofread it. This will prevent you from accidentally sending an incomplete or unedited message.

  7. Answer emails as promptly as you can

    As much as possible, reply to emails within the day or at least the next day. If you can’t answer right away, send a short note saying that you are working on it and will provide what is needed shortly. The recipient will appreciate your professionalism. They will be more likely to give you enough time to work on what is being requested.

    Tip: If you have not received a response to your email within 3-5 days, send a follow-up or call the recipient. Be polite and respectful when you do this. The email may not have reached the person due to technical reasons or it may have landed in their spam folder.

  8. Follow office protocol

    Know your organization’s guidelines about sending and receiving emails. Examples of these would be using a standard signature or greeting/closing (especially for customer-oriented or marketing related emails), not opening attachments especially if you do not know the sender, using only your office email (not your personal email), and others.

    Tip: Privacy policies are strictly followed in Canada. If you handle personal and confidential information in your line of work, know the privacy protocols. In general, be careful about sharing your colleagues’ or clients’ email addresses, names, phone numbers, financial or health information online.

Article updated August 10, 2020.
Sources: 13 annoying email mistakes even smart people make, Minda Zetlin, Inc.com; and 5 rules of forwarding an email, Net M@nners. Accessed August 16 and 17, 2017.

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