Keeping Emails Appropriate

Keeping Emails Appropriate


In our July Article entitled “Keeping Emails Safe” we indicated that we would be looking in a future article at other risks from emails including risks to time management, information overload, discrimination and cyber bullying, misunderstandings, tone of voice and lazy practices.

But why do we need to? Why are there concerns about emails that don’t exist in relation to posted letters?

In all probability, the reason is, as we said in the July article, because emailing is too easy. Emails are easier to type and send than a letter used to be. Emails reach their recipient faster and can therefore be replied to more quickly than a posted letter. The content of an email is usually less formal and more succinct than in a letter.

It is this ease of use that can often create many of the problems that users experience when sending emails.  In the last article, we looked at how emails can more easily be sent to the wrong recipient.  How they can have the incorrect attachment sent with them.  How they can be badly worded and consequently convey the wrong meaning.  How they can be intercepted by cyber criminals and, unless encrypted, read and used for illegal purposes and even be created fraudulently.  How they can have malware and viruses attached to them.

In this article, we are going to look at some of the “appropriateness” issues surrounding emails. Issues such as the extent to which emails can actually make us less efficient rather than more. How we can end up placing pressures on other people by the thoughtless use of emails. At bullying, misunderstandings and other issues relating to content.

With what seems like an almost serendipitous co-incidence, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has decided last month to take the opportunity of reminding solicitors that they need to take care to ensure that any communications they make – whether with clients, other professionals or the public in general – are always professional, lawful and do not cause offence. Indeed, they have gone so far as to publish a warning notice reminding the profession of its responsibilities when sending emails or letters, and when using social media (Offensive Communications). This is something we will touch on below.

The notice came after an increase in reports about comments from solicitors – especially those made on social media – which might be deemed offensive or inappropriate and which could be classed as misconduct. It set out the SRA’s concerns that some solicitors have been making offensive or discriminatory comments, using language intended to shock or threaten and making offensive or abusive comments to and about other firms and their clients and highlighted the regulatory issues that such comments contravene and what is expected of firms in various situations. We will address some of those tone of voice issues below.

Time Management

When emails were first available, it was widely believed that they would revolutionise communication by making it simpler, quicker and more effective. People would have more time to do other things because they would not be writing and sending letters. How wrong could they be?

To say that emails can be time consuming would be something of an understatement. The simple act of wading through a mailbox first thing in the morning, replying to the previous days undealt with communications, reading and then deleting unwanted emails, being distracted by offers or social chit-chat can itself be deceptively time-consuming, especially if you get copied in to correspondence between others in the office.

Managing an email box is a skill that not everyone possesses and everyone must actively try and adopt a policy towards how they deal with and how they send emails if they are to ensure that large amounts of time are not wasted. Tips to consider include:

  • Don’t always assume an email will be quicker than a phone call or a face-to-face meeting – by the time you have exchanged a series of emails you could probably have resolved the matter verbally.
  • If you keep getting newsletters or sales emails from somewhere don’t just delete them if you don’t want them – unsubscribe from their mailing list.
  • Don’t keep switching between tasks and your emails. Do your task and then when you have finished check your emails. If necessary log-out of emails until you have done.
  • Unless it really is urgent don’t fire off a reply to an email just because you have received it. Give yourself time to think about the answer.
  • Don’t ask to be copied in to emails unless you absolutely need to be. If someone copies you in without being asked and you don’t need to know, ask them to stop.
  • Check your email before you send it – both as to content and recipient – as this will be quicker than putting right problems or misunderstandings.
  • Keep as little in your email inbox as possible. Client information needs to go with the client file and if it does not have a client file create logically named folders where things can be stored. Don’t keep emails you don’t need or that don’t really say anything useful.
  • If you get a regular email that is not urgent set up a rule to redirect it to a designated folder.

Information Overload

Information overload is becoming one of the main threats to efficiency and the work place. People are receiving so much information from so many different sources that it is difficult to spot that which is important from that which is not. Many people are now getting hundreds of emails every day, and even if they are not all relevant they still need to be sorted.

To avoid information overload, staff should be encouraged not to subscribe to newsletters and updates they don’t need, and when sending emails that they:

  • make it clear in the subject line what it is about,
  • don’t just keep repeating the same subject line for all replies unless it is still relevant or will help the recipient realise it is about the same point,
  • keep to one subject per email,
  • avoids allowing emails to become too long,
  • if there has to be more than one point in the email, use bullet points, titled paragraphs or numbers,
  • when answering an email with several points, use the same numbers or put your individual replies in a different colour alongside their text.

Also, bear in mind that when someone receives your email they want to be able to scan the email as quickly as possible – so that they can see in a flash what it is, what they need to do, or what is the answer to whatever they emailed about. A good way to make emails easy to follow – and thus get a response from – is to break them down as you would a paper or proposal:

  • Beginning – set the context of the email – i.e. why you are sending it (e.g. I am replying to your email of ….; Further to our meeting on ….; To answer the question you phoned me about last week ….)
  • Middle – the detail of your response
  • End – summarise and if an action is required either by you or the recipient, specify it.


Email is a communication method that can at times seem to have been designed to make misunderstandings the normal response. This is caused by an accumulation of factors including the fact that it is too easy to whizz off a reply, the structure tends to be less formal than a letter and the fact that, whilst now as common as conversations, there is no verbal or face-to-face element for the recipient to judge what the sender’s mood or intention was when sending it.  This latter point is particularly significant as, without the powerful cues of non-verbal communication (e.g., tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, etc.) the chances of a misunderstanding are great – especially in a cross-cultural context.  

It is also easy to come across as rude in an email simply because you are caught up in the stress of your day without realising that the recipient is not. It is best, therefore, never to send an email when your stress levels are high or when you are tired. Instead either wait until later or, if you must write something, write it in draft and then re-read it later to see if you would still have sent it.  

A further factor to bear in mind is that email is not appropriate way to deal with sensitive issues – for example confrontational discussions, bad news or topics that address topics likely to be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Finally, remember that after an email has left your mailbox, you have no control of it. Therefore:

  • If it contains confidential information make sure that you are sending it to the right person and that it is, where necessary, encrypted.
  • Remember that the recipient can forward it on to others so unless you trust the recipient don’t say anything in it that you would not want others to read.
  • Once sent, an e-mail becomes a permanent written record. Treat every e-mail as if it could be used as evidence in a court of law.

Tone of Voice

Linked to misunderstandings is the tone of your email. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled “Emails and Egos” revealed that the meaning and tone of emails are misinterpreted as often as 50 percent of the time.

When you speak to someone, especially in person, then what you say is modified by your physical posture, your facial expression, the tone of your voice and your response to those factors in the other person. None of these apply in an email. The effect is, therefore, that the recipient can only draw conclusions from what they read or, if they have met you or spoken to you, what they already know about you.

As a result, therefore, it is far easier to offend someone in an email – even unintentionally – than it is when speaking to them. For that reason, you need to be especially careful about what you say and the words you use.

Also, avoid writing in capitals as this can come across as the email version of shouting. So always be polite, use pleasant salutations and sign-offs, get the right tone of voice and don’t abbreviate or miss out words unnecessarily.  In particular, avoid using negatives (I do not see why you say that… Sorry, we can’t do that…), which can be read that you are unhelpful, blunt – or even rude and try to write in the tone in which you would like others to write to you.

The problem stems from the fact that for many people texting and emailing has become more akin to speech than to letter writing and so consequently they will use similar words and expressions in an email to those they would use when speaking face-to-face. However, just because you speak in a certain way – when the person to whom you are speaking can see your facial expressions and body language and hear your tone of voice – does not mean that you should write in the same way and expect it to be received appropriately. 

What is more, it is not just a question of the words you choose. It is about your appreciation of the emotional place the other person is in at the time. When you are in the same physical place as the person to whom you are speaking, you can make a judgment about their emotional state and amend how and what you say accordingly.  When you email someone, you cannot. The emotional state of the recipient can alter how they perceive what you say.

You may at that moment be totally stress free and ebullient making you more robust in your language, possibly more chatty, perhaps even jokey-rude. At that same moment, the person with whom you are communicating may have just had bad news, may not have slept well the night before, may be ill, may have just been made to feel foolish by someone else or have tight deadlines and a range of other work and personal problems.  When you are in the same place as them you can pick up the “vibe” and respond appropriately. In an email, you can’t.

You should try, therefore, to make emails neutral in terms of recipient emotional states. Try to imagine how the recipient could interpret what you say. Ask yourself if the comment is appropriate if they are not feeling confident about themselves that day. Avoid ambiguity.

Before you send the email

  • Ask yourself what your relationship is with the recipient and alter the formality of your email accordingly. If you hardly know them don’t be overly familiar or use the same tone you would use with family and close friends.
  • If you think that what you are saying could be misinterpreted then take time to phrase your email in such a way that it is less likely to be – even if it takes slightly longer. The time you save over having to mend fences could be worth it.
  • Avoid abbreviations and text language unless you know the person well. Definitely no emojis.
  • Consider how you begin the email. Start with something “soft” such as “It was great to meet you last week” or “I hope you enjoyed the bank holiday weekend”. However, be wary of “assumption” comments if you don’t know the person. Offence can be caused by asking after family or suggesting going for a beer if the person has just experienced the death of a family member or has religious reasons for not drinking alcohol.
  • Be extremely careful with cc’s and bcc’s. Simply being seen to be copying someone else in could be seen as a way of placing pressure upon the recipient – especially if the cc’d person is a superior in the organisation – or be a breach of a confidence. Also, remember that if you bcc someone, that person may not know it was a bcc and go ahead and do a reply to the recipient without the recipient knowing they had been made aware. A better way is to separately forward the message to the bcc recipient prefaced by a warning that the main recipient is unaware they have been copied in – or better still, don’t be underhand.
  • Avoid the overuse punctuation!!!!  
  • Get someone else to read through an email and see what they think if you are not sure about the tone of voice or how it will be perceived.
  • If you have doubts about sending the email, save it in your draft folder and then go back to it later and reread it before sending.

Lazy practices

A further risk in sending emails that we are going to consider here is the risk of lazy practices. Don’t start to use emails as an alternative to other methods of communication that, whilst not as immediate as an email, do not convey as much meaning.

If you need to speak to someone face-to-face, then do that. Don’t hide behind an email.

If you are unhappy with the way someone in the office is doing something that affects you, confront them in person.

If you need to introduce yourself to a new colleague, go to their office don’t just email them.

Hiding behind computers – however busy we are – doesn’t help in the long term. Get out and interact with our colleagues.

Bullying and Inappropriate Content

Which brings us round to the topic covered in the SRA Warning Notice – the inappropriate use of language in emails.

Research has shown that people are willing to say things in emails and online that they would never dream of saying to someone in person. Email bullies are becoming more common in the work place and have been almost since the start of emails. Going back to 2003, research by job search company Reed revealed that one in six people had received bullying emails.

What should be borne in mind by everyone sending emails is that cyber bullying is no different from any other form of bullying and its effects can be no less devastating.

If you wouldn’t say something to someone then don’t email it. If it is racist, sexist or in any other way discriminatory then don’t say it – whether it is about the recipient or someone else.

Avoid emails that are clearly confrontational or aggressive, don’t try and intimidate and don’t hide behind the email if you don’t have the courage to say the same thing to someone’s face.

It is worth bearing in mind that laws that deal with harassment or threatening behaviour can be brought to bear on incidents of cyber bullying including:

  • Protection from Harassment Act 1997
  • Crime & Disorder Act 1998
  • Communications Act 2003
  • Malicious Communications Act 1988
  • Public Order Act 1986
  • Obscene Publications Act 1959, and
  • Computer Misuse Act 1990

Furthermore, as the SRA warning card reminds us, the content of emails could contravene the Principles in the SRA Code of Conduct including:

  • Principle 1 – upholding the rule of law and the proper administration of justice,
  • Principle 2 – acting with integrity
  • Principle 6 – behaving in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services, and
  • Principle 9 – running your business or carrying out your role in the business in a way that encourages equality of opportunity and respect for diversity

A good rule of thumb for all email content is to ask yourself “Would I be happy to see the contents of this email on the front page of a newspaper?” If the answer to that question is anything other than “Perfectly happy” then don’t send it – because you could do little to prevent it from appearing there if the recipient chose to do so.

Responding to Rude or Bullying Emails

Finally in this article on keeping emails appropriate, we will look briefly at how you should respond to emails that you perceive to be rude, offensive or threatening.

The nature of your response will of course depend upon the severity of the unwanted content.

So far as apparently rude emails are concerned:

  • Decide if it is worth responding – if the aim of the email was to offend you then don’t give the sender the satisfaction of knowing that they have done so. If the offence was unintentional then don’t make an unnecessary enemy by confronting them. Take a deep breath and having done so decide whether to let it go or simply reply as if you had not been offended.
  • Don’t assume that the sender is being rude – they may simply not be very good at putting across the right tone in an email. Certainly do not be rude back.
  • If you think the person is being rude, ask for clarification as to the issue about which they are being rude.
  • Consider not emailing at all – pick up the phone and ring them. It might help clarify things and it will certainly show a bully that you are not willing to be intimidated.
  • If an email doesn’t need a response just don’t send one at all.
  • If you are going to respond, take time to draft the response and don’t send a reply in the heat of the moment. Above all else remain professional, stick to the facts and don’t let emotions or personal opinions of the other person stray into the email.

As to bullying or discriminatory emails:

  • report these to a manager/partner in the firm or to HR
  • make sure that you keep a copy of all such emails
  • write a brief summary of what you think has led to the emails
  • do not become engaged in a war of words with the sender.

and if they are threatening consider reporting it to the police or asking the firm to report it.

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