The seven deadly sins of email

Email has revolutionised communication, making it simpler and faster for
businesses to communicate. For most people, the idea of trying to run a company
without email seems absurd in the current business climate.

But this digital dependency comes at a price. Daily global email traffic is
expected to almost double by 2006 – from 31 billion today to 60 billion,
according to IT analyst firm IDC. Such huge volumes mean that email consumes
more and more of the average employee’s working day – with devastating
implications for workplace productivity.

The time we spend sending – and responding to – emails is extremely expensive
for business. Recent research by Emphasis among senior staff in some of the UK’s
Big Four firms reveals that they spend an average of £10,000 per person annually
on paying people to read and write emails.

Most of us have developed bad habits because of the sheer convenience of the
medium. Clearly, we need to find ways of cutting down on email traffic and
managing it more efficiently.

Ingrained habits are difficult to change in any organisation, but you have to
start somewhere. There are common email pitfalls that everyone in business falls
into that only contribute to the email deluge. But a few simple rules for email
use and email style can make all the difference. Consider these seven deadly
sins of email and how to avoid them.

Copying emails unnecessarily to colleagues
Needlessly long distribution lists are a major cause of the email log
jam and often distract employees from their core work. One of the main reasons
for endless ‘cc-ing’ of colleagues and incessant ‘fyi’ forwarding is that staff
feel they are covering their backs by including others – often their seniors –
on email trails.

This is a sad reflection of the blame culture in many organisations and needs
to be addressed at a more fundamental level. It also negates the point of team
members having their own responsibilities.

Cultural issues aside, it is important to encourage staff to distribute
emails only to those who really need to see them.

Using email for complex or emotive issues
Email may be convenient, but it’s also easy to misinterpret, lacking
the visual clues of face-to-face communications. You simply cannot judge if it
has elicited a bad response or not.

It may seem convenient for circulating a document to glean input from
multiple people, but it can spark off an email frenzy that you will find hard to
cope with. There’s nothing like ‘email noise’ – ten messages from ten recipients
in two hours, all containing conflicting views – to stress you out. In this
scenario, it may be more sensible to circulate the document and arrange a
follow-up meeting to discuss views.

Or if it’s patently something that requires discussion, just pick up the

Similarly, we’ve all heard the horror stories of bosses announcing
redundancies by email. A redundancy is never going to be good news, but
receiving notification of it by email just adds insult to injury. Likewise
appraisals or a request for a pay rise. It really doesn’t make sense to broach
these subjects on email. They are much better dealt with face to face, or at
least with a memo or letter.

Email is best suited to simple communications, such as scheduling meetings
and circulating minutes or updates. It isn’t a substitute for face-to-face or
phone communications. Remember that informal networks – a chat around the water
cooler – remain fundamental to working life.

Being too informal
Although it is tempting to view email as a form of electronic chatting, it is
dangerous to do so. Avoid being overly informal when writing emails to people
you don’t know very well. Be led by them when it comes to style.

Email is still business communication after all and if you are communicating
externally, remember that you are representing your company. You don’t want to
risk your company’s reputation by being inappropriately relaxed, so it’s better
to let the recipient make the first move to ascertain the required tone and you
can follow suit.

Hitting the reply all button by mistake
This fits well with the previous point. Because email is quick and viewed as a
less formal medium than letters or memos, people can be careless in their
eagerness to reply.

We all know stories about people who have mistakenly hit the reply all
button, criticising the sender or one of the recipients, when they only meant
the email to go to a selected few. This needs to be avoided at all costs.
Mistakes like this could cause much embarrassment and even jeopardise your

Being too verbose
A short and simple email is more likely to get the recipient’s attention, rather
than being stored until he or she has longer to look at it. People can always
print off a more detailed attachment if it’s an issue that requires time and
thought. Complex documents are easier to read offline. But avoid being
unnecessarily curt in your email communications – you may risk offending the

Sending structureless messages
If your message has to be longer, use sub-heads and short paragraphs to
add structure and make it easier to digest. People take longer to read
information on screen, so you need to make the process as easy as possible for
them. Use capitals for sub-heads, rather than relying on HTML formatting (not
everyone has this facility). But don’t write your whole message in caps as it
will sound ANGRY.

Subscribing to email publications you don’t read
We all sign up to e-zines and email newsletters we never read. Whilst we feel
that we ought to subscribe to the latest accountancy newsletter and keep abreast
of developments in our industry, our daily working life may mean that we simply
don’t get time to read them. If that’s the case, unsubscribe. Such emails will
only clutter up your inbox and add to the already overwhelming sense of email

There’s no doubt that email can be a scourge on productivity and an added
source of stress. Used inappropriately, it can even cause embarrassment and
elicit unintended responses. But follow a few simple rules and apply a bit of
self-discipline, and email can live up to its promise of being a fast – and
efficient – communications tool.

Robert Ashton is a senior consultant with Emphasis Training, which runs
courses on how to improve email efficiency and writing courses for

Related reading