Software

15 of the most often cited misuses of e-mail

TechRepublic member PenguinVitamins decided to start a discussion thread in our forums asking for community input to form a list of the most common misuses of e-mail. The response was enormous and resulted in a notable list of misuses and comments both for and against his discussion points.

Whether you are discussing a specific organization or the general culture, e-mail is an integral part of the communication infrastructure. From the mundane to the top secret, e-mail is the default form of communication for many organizations, especially among information technology professionals. However, this prominence also means that e-mail is subject to a multitude of misuses and abuse, which, at the very least, annoy and frustrate.

With this idea in mind, TechRepublic member PenguinVitamins decided to start a discussion thread in our forums asking for community input to form a list of the most common misuses of e-mail. The response was enormous and resulted in a notable list of misuses and comments both for and against the items on that list. The wealth of information presented again bears out the truth that, when it comes to knowing information technology, there is no better resource than the IT community at large.

The list

Here is PenguinVitamins' original list along with additions from Jaqui and DT-IT.

  1. Replying to mail sent in an e-mail distribution list. Quite a common mistake one makes is to simply reply to mail sent in distribution lists. Not all replies are intended for all members of the list and it, in most cases, becomes "spam" mail as reply messages are being bounced around using the same original recipient list. The question you should ask yourself before replying to the mail without editing the recipient list is:
    Is your reply intended for the whole distribution list? If not make sure you change the recipient list accordingly. You will in most cases irritate other listed members.
  2. Receipts and delivery reports to large distribution list. Receipts are good for tracking e-mail responses but ineffective when you don't need to. The questions you should ask before enabling receipts to a message originally sent via a large distribution list are:
    a. Do you care if the recipients read this message? If not receipts are unnecessary and adds overhead to mail systems.
    b. Do you really want to receive a large volume of receipts in your already clogged up e-mail inbox?
  3. Receipts as a default setting. One can set up your e-mail client in such a way that it requests a delivery report or read receipt on every e-mail you generate. But is it really necessary, is it effective and is it acceptable to your e-mail audience in all instances? Before making receipts a default setting on your e-mail client program you should consider the following:
    a. Do you care if the recipients always read all of your messages, including carbon copied (cc) e-mails?
    b. Do you need to keep track of every single e-mail you sent? What is the REAL reason for doing so and are there no better alternatives?
  4. The use of Carbon copy (cc). If I had any say in e-mail program development I would remove the cc feature. It is probably the topmost misused feature in any organization and it means that a single e-mail message is unnecessarily sent one too many times. The questions you should ask before entering someone's e-mail address in the cc field:
    a. Is the mail urgent for the cc'ed recipients in other words are it important for you if they will read or respond to a cc'ed mail.
    b. Are you using it only to show your boss that you have done a task he/she has asked for?
    The chances are very good that the recipient (including your boss) has already set up his/her e-mail inbox to filter cc'ed mail, either to the trash bin or to a special unimportant mail folder.
  5. Forwarding mails from an external or internal source without adding value to the original e-mail. In real life, if you discovered something useful you would go up to a person and maybe say" Hey John, look what I've found, it could be helpful with that important proposal you're doing" …. So why do you appoint yourself to act as a mail relay? The person you directly forward an e-mail without providing some explanation or input, either might not understand why you forward him/her the e-mail or might or might not like it. If you want to be helpful, be helpful in a better way.
  6. Writing in capital or bolding all words and sentences. Shouting is sometimes necessary, but via an e-mail message? Really?
  7. Asking someone in the corridor or over the phone if he/she got your e-mail. My standard reply to someone asking such a question is "No, have not seen it". Why use e-mail then in the first place? It takes longer to compile an e-mail message than talking to a person. The flipside is, did you ask for a response or action in your e-mail message and did you ask the timeframe?
  8. Blind carbon copy (Bcc) and e-mail. The appropriate terms for this feature are "RUDE and inappropriate". The fact that you post an e-mail to one person and without this person's knowledge mail another exact copy to another person, is unacceptable, and in most cases unethical. It would be more acceptable to send someone an e-mail and then send a copy of this e-mail to the person you wanted to send it to in BCC format WITH a comment or reason doing so e.g. Starting off with e.g. "Hi Greg, I've sent this e-mail to John and thought you should read it as well etc. etc."
  9. Longwinded e-mails, longwinded reply upon reply, upon reply. Using e-mail for a discussion or "chatting" becomes quite ineffective after a while. You've seen them, that reply on reply on reply. It becomes even more confusing if there are multiple versions of the message, all with their own string of replies. The question you should ask after the 3rd or fourth reply to your original message is: Can this discussion not be done over a phone or conference call or in a meeting? Remember you spend 5, 10 even 20 minutes preparing your reply, the other person feeling committed to reply does the same, and so on. A ? hour meeting might've shortened the discussion.
  10. Headers, footers and greetings…Too lazy to add them? For example do you really mean "With regards" at the end of your mail message? Start off by having a look at your mail content. Did you start your e-mail with a proper greeting e.g. e.g. Dear John, Hi John, etc. Another fact is the person might or might not have time to write you a reply so did you at least provide alternative contact details? Good practice and corporate branding is to start standardizing e-mail formats for greetings, content, footers details and disclaimers.
  11. a. Top posting when replying. If the recipient only skimmed ( list messages ) then your email makes no sense to them. Reply after original message or break the quoted text and insert your reply, right after the section replying to.
    b. Not trimming when replying. Look at most signatures, they get added on after you hit send, so if the message has been sent 4 times there are 4 signatures added that aren't needed, delete them.
  12. Fancy formatting. It isn't needed, those pretty colors, scripted fonts etc are just overhead in the system that is a complete waste.
  13. Sending attached files. DON'T—unless it is in response to a request for a specific file, never send attached files; then, make sure it is in plain text, xml, pdf. Fancy formatting is okay in the PDF, if it's a letter, then plain text only.
  14. Excessive and unnecessary quoting of material. Could be seen as too lazy to edit, I suppose. ALL CAPS becomes a convenient method of commenting without reformatting between sections of the existing post, especially when plain text is involved. We all pay for bandwidth, one way or another. When long posts are involved, savage editing is a kind thing.
  15. Original posts without cogent titles and the RE: Posts that follow another's who either can't figure out how to put a title to their posts, or who are simply too lazy or inconsiderate to bother.

Alternative view

At first blush the complied list seems like a reasonable list of ways users can misuse e-mail systems. However, when you start to analyze each item you find exceptions to the rule. These mitigating circumstances were best described by TechRepublic members UCA, mindilator@, and bhaupt during the course of the discussion. Some of their points are summarized here:

UCA

I have to disagree with most of what you say:

  1. If a message is sent to a list of people it means that everybody in that list has an interest in the matter so they should be informed of what the others have to say (write). It is the originator's fault if he included people that have nothing to do with the topic.
  2. Of course I care if my recipients read my messages. Why would I send them in the first place!?
  3. Maybe you are right here
    a. Cc is useful because it divides your recipients into those who need to do something about what you are saying and those who only need to be informed about the matter.
    b. Cc to your boss often adds weight to your content.
  4. If you receive info that you know someone else needs and can use, what is there to add?! How about those "No comment" pieces of news? Are you against them too?
  5. Some phrases in a message are more important than others. If they are crucial, why risk to be overlooked by the readers?
  6. No, I don't ask if they got my e-mail: to avoid annoyance from people like you. I TELL them that I sent an e-mail and that I need an answer in a given time.
  7. I agree: If you send a written message you should have the guts to put everyone in To or Cc
  8. Reply upon reply upon reply is useful when you need to trace back everything that has been communicated on a subject—often some months back. If you spend 10-20 min to compose your reply means that you give the matter some thought, and you know that everybody will get the message when they have the time to read it. Meetings are not an option for people working in different locations or for issues that take more than 1 day to solve.

It looks to me that you are rather maintaining e-mail systems rather than use e-mail as a work tool and you would like these systems to be used as little and gently as possible to avoid problems. Sorry, this won't happen. We need e-mail to convey complex written messages to all the people involved in a process!

mindilator@

I work in an organization made up almost entirely of franchise owners, each competing with each other. It is against corporate policy to send emails to all of these franchise owners at once without placing the names in BCC. The reason for this is to keep the email addresses of each of these franchise owners private from each other. Everyone is allowed one "accident" but after that, serious disciplinary action is taken against the offending party. All of these rules of etiquette may be subject to an exception, and so therefore should not necessarily be your rules, but a guideline for making your own rules. Common sense always seems to be common only to the IT guys, so just use common sense in your organization. I think that's the point the author's really trying to make. All of his rules appear to be in reaction to a non-tech's lack of common sense. I have never found a BCC to be "RUDE" or even "rude" or even plain inappropriate. Only people with insecurity issues would mind being BCC'ed.

bhaupt

I agree with comments elsewhere that the BCC is critical for all distribution lists which are not maintained on an Exchange server as separate units, but am concerned about what sounds like misuse of company systems for personal and/or political purposes.

Further, the BCC tool is properly applied within a business context to do exactly that which you decried as "rude" — the notification of supervision or other concerned parties that a memo of X content was sent to Y individual. Is this not the exact function that the BCC was performing with less bandwidth, storage and even less productivity loss?

Lastly, but definitely MOST importantly, the primary rule to apply in email (as in all document distribution) is "Need To Know". NEVER send a copy of a memo to someone as a CYA. ONLY copy those people who truly need to know. If you miss someone, they can always be added later! Every person who receives a message becomes responsible for its maintenance and destruction. This may, or may not be regulated by government rules or laws depending on your industry or departmental function. (Do the names Enron and Anderson Consulting ring a bell?)

Remember, that although it may not be recognized as such by a large cross-section of your workforce, in the final analysis email is a FORMAL business communication method that is subject to all the same rules and regulations that paper and other documents are.

Policy

The alternative points of view cannot be dismissed from the debate. The rationale and distinct nature of each point only confirms the need for a comprehensive organization e-mail policy. This is where TechRepublic's download, Build Your Own: E-mail Usage Policy, comes in. Version 1.0 of this download just covers the basics of an e-mail usage policy. For the next version, we would like to expand and enhance the coverage of this policy and we need your help. We want to know what is missing from Build Your Own: E-mail Usage Policy. We will incorporate the best community provided ideas directly into Version 2.0 of the download.

About Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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