Teams, Slack, Zoom, Google Meets — there are a million and one ways to communicate in the workplace, but email remains one of the most popular forms. Whether you’re sending an important update to your team, addressing something with a client, or just forwarding your work friend something funny, email etiquette is crucial for maintaining professionalism and ensuring your emails get read.
So, what is email etiquette in 2023 and beyond? We’ve got you covered.
We’re on a mission to get motivated students into great jobs.
Our free courses help candidates get noticed by their employer of choice.
Why Is Email Etiquette Important?
First things first — why is email etiquette important? Can’t you just send an email with a response? Why do there have to be so many rules about how and when to send an email (okay, only 20 rules, but still)?
Email etiquette is important because it’s a crucial communication tool in the workplace. When you know how to send an email correctly — whether that’s when to send it, how to sign off, or just making sure to check someone’s name — you’re showing people at work that you’re a reliable professional.
“How we communicate with each other is crucial to our business success and reputation, especially when we are starting out,” Laura Windsor, founder of the Laura Windsor Etiquette Academy, says. “Being professional includes knowing and practicing good manners in all situations; it helps to build and cement relationships. It also indicates that a person is intelligent, confident, and considerate of others. So the things we say, or in this case, write, will greatly influence our success.”
>>MORE: What Are Writing Skills?
If you can’t communicate with a client, send clear updates to your team, or even share your wins, you’ll have a hard time getting your job done well — and it’ll be harder to convince others you’re doing a good job.
Email Etiquette Tips
So, if email etiquette can have that much of an impact on your career, what are the rules? We’ll cover:
- What to Include in an Email
- Email Tone and Style
- Responding to Emails
- Email Follow Ups
- Mastering Email Technology
What to Include in an Email
1. Start with a clear subject line.
As a rule of thumb, keep your subject lines short and to the point. They should give a clear context of why you’re contacting this person.
“This helps the recipient understand the purpose of your email and can help to ensure it doesn’t get lost in a cluttered inbox,” Christine DeJoy, vice president of communications at CEDIA, says.
How much information you put in your subject line depends on to whom you’re writing. For example, if you’re writing to someone outside of your company who doesn’t know who you are, you may include your company name in the subject line. On the other hand, if you’re writing to someone internal, you can include company information they’re familiar with, like a project name.
2. Check their name, then check it again.
It’s the bare minimum to spell someone’s name correctly when emailing them. Double, triple, and even quadruple-check that you’re spelling their name exactly how they’ve spelled it in their correspondence. This includes symbols like accents — it’s a quick Google search if you don’t know how to put an accent over a letter on your keyboard. Everyone deserves to be addressed correctly!
3. Start with a professional greeting.
In 2023, we can get slightly more creative than “I hope this email finds you well.” It’s not the absolute worst option, but it’s still cliché. You can try something a little bit more relevant, like:
- I’m reaching out about
- I hope you’re having a great week
- It’s nice to meet you
- Thanks for X
- As discussed, I’m following up about
4. Get to the point.
There’s no need to write an essay or write more than a couple of paragraphs.
“Do keep your messages concise,” DeJoy says. “Many people are receiving a high volume of emails, and keeping your messages brief can help to ensure they get read and acted upon.”
5. End your email clearly and professionally.
It should go without saying, but “xoxo” isn’t the best way to sign off. Instead, restate what you need from the person you’re emailing and use a professional email signature.
Email Tone and Style
6. Opt for more formality.
The same rule applies when figuring out the right business attire: go more formal than casual.
“The level of formality will depend on the industry you are in and to whom you are speaking,” Windsor says. “It is always best to err on the side of caution, although excessive formality is not advised. Be sensitive to gender, names, and titles as respect is key.”
7. Don’t overdo it on unconventional formatting.
Emojis are fun . So are smiley faces :). There’s no need to avoid using exclamation points! We’re not here to bash any of these in-text additions that can elevate your tone. We’re just here to advise you to use them in the proper context. For example, if it’s a serious update, maybe save the emojis for later.
“Proofread before hitting send,” DeJoy says. “Spelling and grammar mistakes can make you appear careless and unprofessional. Just take a few extra minutes to proofread your email before hitting send. You’ll be glad you did.”
>>MORE: Learn how to improve your attention to detail.
9. Lead with empathy …
Emails can be transactional, but remember, there’s a person behind the email, too.
“Do be empathetic and mindful of the recipient’s situation,” DeJoy says. “Since the start of the pandemic, many people are dealing with increased stress and uncertainty. Being mindful of this and demonstrating empathy in your emails can help to build stronger relationships. Use clear and thoughtful language, especially when working with international associates.”
10. … but if it’s a particularly emotional situation, consider whether it should be an email at all.
“Don’t email when you’re upset or to share bad news,” Lisa Mirza Grotts, certified etiquette expert, says. “This should always be done in person.”
While you don’t need to set up a meeting every time something goes wrong, opt for a meeting if it’s a particularly sensitive, private, emotional, or serious subject. Providing additional context in a form where people can see and hear you may be more beneficial. If you can’t do it in person, a video call works, too.
11. Remember there’s a paper trail (albeit a virtual one).
“Email is non-verbal conversation where words can be misconstrued when there’s no face-to-face communication,” Mirza Grotts says. “There is no such thing as privacy on the internet, so what you say and how you say it matters. Remember the golden rule: ‘e’ equals evidence. Emails can always be recovered, so never send one that you will regret as it may end up on the cover of the New York Times.”
Even if it’s not New York Times-scandal-bad, remember that somebody can forward every email you send to someone else.
Responding to Emails
12. (Usually) don’t reply all.
When you reply all to a message not everyone on the list needs to read, it’s like they’re getting a flood of messages from a group chat they can’t get out of.
“Choose your recipients carefully,” Windsor says. “Avoid sending ‘reply to all’ unless all recipients need to receive the message. It is not your remit to give out other people’s email addresses without their permission. So use the Bcc feature, which stands for ‘blind carbon copy,’ to avoid giving out others’ email addresses when sending an email to large numbers of recipients.”
So, when should you use each function?
- Reply: When you’re just having a normal conversation with a person, or if you just need to speak to one person on a team
- Reply all: Only if the message absolutely needs to be seen by everyone on the thread
- BCC: If you’re copying someone on a message for visibility, but you don’t want everyone to see their email address, or if someone has introduced you to someone else, and you want to avoid flooding their inbox with the following conversation.
13. Respond in a timely manner.
The pandemic altered how we view “timely” in two contrasting ways. First, with many people working remotely, we expect that everyone has access to their email all the time and, therefore, should respond quickly. On the other hand, the pandemic has shown us that our “always-on” culture can lead to burnout, and we should take healthy breaks away from our computers.
>>MORE: How to Improve Work-Life Balance
So, what does “timely” actually mean in 2023 and beyond?
Windsor recommends the 24-hour rule, with a follow-up if you need more time.
“Aim for a reply within 24 hours of receiving it and always proofread your emails before hitting the send button,” Windsor says. “If you receive an email that will require a lengthy or considered reply, it is polite to send back an email saying something along the lines of ‘Thanks for this, I’ll get back to you within the next few days.’ This lets the sender know that the email is not being ignored and shows that you have acknowledged their email.”
If you’re still unsure, the best thing you can do is ask for clarification and expectations for your particular job and company. For example, does your boss expect you to answer within the hour? Is it okay to take a couple of days if there’s an ask included in the email? Communicating about communication can seem annoying, but knowing the expectations is better than getting in trouble because you took too long to respond.
14. Follow up only after a reasonable amount of time to respond.
The general rule of thumb is to follow up 72 hours after you’ve sent an email, but this should be a loose practice rather than a strict guideline. Consider:
- How urgent is my request? Do I have a deadline?
- Is this someone who’s told me to give them a certain amount of time to get back to them? Has it been that amount of time?
- Did I miss a vacation responder or their response? (Triple-check that they haven’t responded before you follow up.)
>>MORE: Not sure how to reach out to a hiring manager after you’ve interviewed? Here’s how to follow up after a job interview (with an example).
15. Be clear about why you’re following up.
Don’t just follow up with the line, “following up on this!” Instead, add any additional context that might help the recipient and end with a call to action. Ideally, the person should understand 1) what you’re talking about and 2) how they should respond and by when.
Mastering Email Technology
16. Use templates to make your life easier …
Are you often sending similar emails for outreach or follow-ups? Build an email template to make your life easier. It’s much simpler than copying and pasting the exact copy every time.
17. … but don’t make it obvious you’re sending a pre-filled email.
Make sure you add a little personalization and change any filler language before sending.
18. If you say you’re attaching something, include the attachment.
And if it’s a Google document or something they need access to, make sure they have access.
19. Schedule send for conventional working hours.
You’re not proving anything by sending that email at 1 a.m., except maybe waking your coworker up to a phone alert. If you’re working unconventional hours, schedule to send that email during conventional working hours. Better yet, schedule send for that person’s conventional hours in their time zone.
20. If you’re going out of office, set up a simple out-of-office message.
Are you taking a few days off? Help yourself by setting an out-of-office message (most email platforms have a setting for this). There’s no need to explain why you’re out. Include a point of contact for emergencies, and let them know you’ll read their email when you return.
Email Etiquette: The Bottom Line
Email is a crucial part of our everyday work life, from sending status updates and communicating with clients to sharing wins and having strategy discussions. Practicing good email etiquette ensures you’re considered professional and can get your job done well — and have written proof that you’re doing the work.
Ready to improve your email skills? Practice professional email etiquette and other career readiness skills with Standard Bank’s Getting Ready to Join the Workforce Virtual Experience Program.
Image credit: Canva