Email mishaps are costly and underline the need for robust standards for email best practice, says Monica Seeley.

The recent outcry over claims that education secretary Michael Gove used a personal email account for government business has again highlighted the need for organisations to have a clear, well understood and accepted strategy for email best practice.

Whether or not Gove is breaching the law remains to be seen. But it would be interesting to know more about the Education Department’s policy for using personal email accounts, and whether or not the department has evidence that Gove has read and agreed to it.

Email to improve business performance

Image: Mesmo Consultancy

In 2004, Royal Bank of Scotland took an employee to court for a breach of its acceptable usage policy. The bank lost because the employee demonstrated he had neither seen nor agreed to the policy.

Such email mishaps are costly and, taken with the lost productivity through email overload, underline the need for organisations to have robust standards for email best practice.

These emailgate-type disasters also demonstrate that email best practice is 80 per cent people- and processes-related and only 20 per cent technologically grounded.

You can have the best technology email infrastructure but if the people using it do not adhere to some basic principles of best practice, the technology investment is money down the drain.

Here is an outline of a seven-step process to develop and implement a strategy for reducing the risk of such emailgate-type disasters and reclaiming some of that lost productivity.

Strategic email best practice

Image: Mesmo Consultancy

Step 1

Identify the challenges for your specific business. For example, for a retail business, poor email etiquette might be costing it dearly. For public sector organisations, there is likely to be a heavy emphasis on compliance and security.

Forwarding and using a personal email account for business poses security risks. Before the advent of the Freedom of Information Act, when politicians used their own email accounts, breaches of security were always a major concern.

Step 2

Review and check your acceptable usage policy. Make sure it is up to date and has been read and accepted by everyone from the CEO to the receptionist, and especially by part-time and temporary employees. This policy is your first and main line of defence when things go badly wrong.

Step 3

After reviewing the challenges for your organisation, break them up into those that can be resolved by changing users’ email behaviour and those where technology would help. Examples of using technology to help would be where you need to store and search large volumes of emails: a proper dedicated email archiving system is one solution.

Most email system outages are caused by…


…top-heavy inboxes. Archiving helps reduce this risk. Lowering the volume of transient and ephemeral emails can often be mitigated with the use of instant messaging (IM). However, IM itself brings other challenges as it represents another distraction that needs managing as part of best practice.

Step 4

Having identified what can be changed by altering email behaviour, you now need to frame some guidelines. Rather than writing them just as dos and don’ts, one way that many of my clients find beneficial is to frame them as a charter, often around a mnemonic linked to their core values.

For example, ‘Customs’ for an organisation whose values are related to customer focus. ‘Tracks’ for one in the rail business. Each word represents an aspect of email best practice. For example, with Tracks, T can equal ‘Take time to deal with your email’. Our Nine Ps of Email Best Practice can be downloaded free as a template for a starting point.

Step 5

Training needs to cater for all levels and types of employees from part-timers to very senior executives with very little time to spare. This means having a mix of delivery mechanisms from webinars to one-on-one coaching. Politicians at all levels are the biggest offenders for creating emailgate disasters, and yet in my experience they are the worst at finding time to buy into the messages.

Step 6

Reinforce the message. We are dealing with behaviour change, which means you need to monitor and reinforce the new behaviour. This is the area where activities such as email-free Fridays can be very useful to remind people to think outside email and talk more often.

Step 7

Train the new joiners. It sounds obvious but people often forget to include their email best practice in their induction training and then wonder why a new graduate is at the root of a costly email disaster.

Three quick ways to start implementing a robust enterprise-wide email best practice strategy are:

  • Run a focus group to start engaging people.
  • Pilot an email best practice workshop with a cohesive team of users, such as a department.
  • Measure and evaluate the benefits and use these to start the enterprise-wide programme.

Dr Monica Seeley is an international expert on email management. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University, and has just written her third book Brilliant Email published by Pearson. You can follow her daily email tips and hints on Twitter.