We talk a lot about e-mail here at TechRepublic, for good reason. For most IT Managers, e-mail is the indispensable application. Just ask yourself this question: Which would you rather be without for a day, your e-mail client or your Web browser? (And, yes, I know that for some of you your browser is your e-mail client, but you know what I mean.)

Therefore, I hope you’ll forgive me for writing about e-mail again this week. In today’s column, I want to explain why I think the blind carbon copy (Bcc) feature of most e-mail clients is dangerous and why I believe you should not promote its use in your organization.

Fundamentally dishonest
My aversion to the Bcc isn’t due to some recent epiphany. I’ve hated it since the first time I used a corporate e-mail system. (To prove what a dinosaur I am, I’ll tell you that it ran on a Wang mini—this was in the early 1980s.)

In my opinion, there’s something fundamentally dishonest about sending an e-mail to someone without letting the recipient know that others are receiving the same message. While you can certainly get the same effect by forwarding a Sent Message to another person, to me that seems less objectionable.
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Perhaps my views on this issue are colored by the e-mail flame wars I’ve had to douse over the years. When I worked at another publisher a number of years ago, there were two members of my staff who absolutely detested each other. As luck would have it, they had to work closely together on an important project and meet a tight deadline. They communicated entirely via e-mail, though their offices weren’t more than 20 feet apart (that should have been a warning sign, but that’s another column.)

As you could have predicted, it wasn’t long before they were in the middle of a digital donnybrook, each response dripping with venom under a veneer of civility. What made the situation surreal was that each of them started naming me as a Bcc for their replies.

Therefore, I ended up receiving not one but two surreptitious sets of hate mail from the pair.

Here’s what really hacked me off. Constant readers will know that I’ve discussed how easy it is to send an intemperate e-mail to a colleague in a fit of pique, turning a momentary irritation into a major conflict with the click of a mouse.

We’ve all been there. In fact, I still make that mistake at least once every couple of months—though I know better.

As bad as those kinds of e-mails can get, I’d rather get 10 of them than a single sanctimonious Bcc, like those I received from this pair. A typical message would start like this:

While I was frankly hurt by your reference to me in your last message as an “untalented, two-faced hack who couldn’t write her way out of a recycled paper bag,” I’m going to rise above such pettiness and keep my comments professional…

To which I’d get another Bcc response some time later that day, along the lines of:

How interesting that in one e-mail you state your desire to “keep my comments professional,” and in the very next e-mail you write “…and if you come to my office, I’ll tell you what you can do with that copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.” While this is sad on a personal level, I’m going to focus on the job at hand…

And so on, and so on, each one pretending to be the soul of propriety (at least in the e-mails they included me in on), until I finally told them that they had to communicate to each other face-to-face, without e-mail.

You can live without it
Of course, this pair had problems even without e-mail, which the Bcc option only made worse. However, there are other reasons to oppose the use of the Bcc within your organization:

  • It’s designed make you take sides: The sender of a Bcc message is trying to get your backing for something without letting the recipient know. Otherwise, the sender would just use a conventional cc to include you, right?
  • It forces you to arbitrate: The people involved are discouraged from dealing with the problem themselves.
  • It’s sneaky: Not to belabor the obvious, but why not forward a Sent Mail message or cc you in the first place instead of the Bcc charade?
  • It creates more headaches for you: Not only do you sometimes have to arbitrate, but before that point, it’s hard to keep straight what you’re supposed to know and what you’re not supposed to know.

Fortunately, you don’t need the Bcc option. My experience tells me you can avoid a lot of potential problems by discouraging its use.
Do you use the Bcc option when sending e-mail? Please post a comment to this article.