Much has been written on the cyberpages of about e-mail issues, ranging from how to prevent the spread of e-mail viruses to managing the size of ever-increasing inboxes. One of my favorite discussion threads (with over 180 posts and counting) was spawned by Bob Artner’s column “Banishing the dreaded Bcc (blind carbon copy).”

This week, I’d like to present my “big three” rules of e-mail etiquette. If you’d like to suggest additional rules of e-mail etiquette, please post a note below or drop me a line.
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Rule #1: Never write anything mean
I’ve written my share of hateful e-mails in my professional career, and I’ve regretted them because frequently I’ve been called on the carpet about them. Recently I received a message that had been forwarded through several hands, and in the threads was someone’s less-than-favorable opinion about me. The author had no idea that the message would eventually get back to me—but it did, and those words did irreparable damage to my relationship with that person.

Folks, this is the most important and most difficult rule to follow. If you write something nasty about a coworker in an e-mail message, rest assured that your words eventually will be passed along to the target of your derision. At the very least, someone’s feelings will get hurt. In the worst-case scenario, you might be accused of creating a hostile work environment.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nothing you say (or write) is ever completely off the record.

So if you’re upset or disappointed with someone, and you’re tempted to vent your frustration in an e-mail message to one of your coworkers, don’t bother. Get those negative thoughts out of your head so you’re not tempted to put them into writing. Only gossipmongers care what your negative opinions are, anyway. Use your time to think of something good to do or say for a change.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rule #2: Never copy someone’s manager’s manager’s manager
Here’s a dirty little trick that’s been around as long as e-mail. Someone thinks they need to put you in your place, so they write you a nasty e-mail message. And they copy your manager, or your manager’s manager, or they go all the way to the top and copy the CEO of the company.

If you break this rule, you’re giving someone a reason to make an exception to Rule #1. You deserve to be flamed. If you have something important to tell a coworker, be man or woman enough to deal directly with that person. If you use e-mail to go over someone’s head in the corporate chain of command, you make yourself look like a brown-nosing know-it-all.
“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of—but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

—Robert A. Heinlein

Rule #3: Never forward company mail out of the office
If your company’s human resources department doesn’t already have a policy in place about company e-mail, the IT department should step up and create one. The policy should state: “When the CEO or any other officer of the organization sends out a company-wide e-mail message, consider it as company-confidential material.” In other words, no matter how goofy or innocent you think the note is, don’t forward it to your friends outside the company.

There are two reasons for keeping company e-mail confidential:

  • First, it’s the ethically and morally correct thing to do.
  • Second, you could lose your job if you inadvertently send sensitive or confidential material out into the world, where it winds up in the hands of a competitor.

Do you have any official or unofficial rules about how to use e-mail in your shop? Have you experienced firsthand what can happen when e-mail privileges are abused? Please post a note below or follow this link to write to Jeff.