Business Email Etiquette

Email communication has grown exponentially over the past decade which has made everyone more in-touch with work, but also more distracted. How do you make your email messages a more effective and efficient communication tool for you? There are certainly many do’s and do not’s of emailing, but many of the same rules of proper business communication still apply. When in doubt, always communicate via email in a professional, business-like manner.

With access to sensitive information and training that often focuses more on numbers than the written word, professionals in the financial industries in particular can benefit from attention to sound email practices. A CPA needs to learn how to protect confidential information while crafting an email for maximum effect using an appropriate tone and identifying the intended audience before you ever hit “send.” It is important to acknowledge best practices around greetings and closings, email signatures, responses, and managing one’s overflowing inbox.

With apologies to Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging, email far and away is the predominant means of business communication today. But don’t take it for granted—there’s an art to crafting an effective email that saves time for both the sender and the recipient, avoids embarrassing and potentially costly snafus, and advances business objectives. Learn from the mistakes of others and review the best practices that can produce meaningful emails time after time.

Email is not meant to be used excessively to communicate every shred of minutiae (although plenty of professionals do use it excessively). If something cannot be summed up in three paragraphs or less, it does not belong in an email. Also, email is not to be used for something that can be accomplished more effectively through another means of communication (e.x., over the phone, in person, or in a meeting). Keep in mind that due to the high risk of hacking and data theft, email is never an appropriate medium for sharing sensitive or confidential information.

Here are some high-level tips to consider when writing your next email:

Greeting and Closing

Should you include a greeting and closing in your emails? Best practices recommend that an email should include a greeting, or opening, in email communications instead of jumping immediately into the message. It sets the tone of the communication as professional and courteous before the message begins. The same applies for the closing of the email. A proper closing and sign-off ends the communication on a positive note and can even soften the tone of a relatively tough email. Remember to be consistent—the tone and level of formality in the greeting, the body of the email, and the closing should match.

“Dear” vs. “Hi”

“Dear” is the standard greeting, while “Hi” or “Hello” are considerably more informal and conversational. All are fine to use in email communications, as long as the greeting matches the formality of the relationship between the sender and the recipient. “Hey” may be a perfectly fine way to address a peer, but it is probably not the best way to open an email to a boss, a potential colleague, or a stranger. Use it cautiously (if ever) in business communications.

Defining the Subject Field

The best subjects are relevant, not particularly vague, and brief. Be succinct, but specific so that your message can be easily found and understood. When is it appropriate to start a new message rather than forwarding or replying a previous one? If the new message relates to the same subject, forwarding or replying is okay. If the new message is on a new topic, start a new thread with a new subject line. If the thread is particularly long, consider deleting it or summarizing it in a few sentences for the recipient’s convenience, especially if new recipients are included late in the thread or if a substantial amount of time has passed between correspondences.

Drafting the Body of the Email

Before beginning an email, you must answer one key question: “What do you hope to achieve by sending the message?” Is it to convey information to the recipient? To ask a question and obtain an answer from the recipient? To issue a call to action? Or to maintain a relationship or provide a professional update, that is the email is mostly social in nature? Once the email’s purpose is clear, organize your thoughts and determine how best to accomplish the email’s objective.

When drafting your email aim to answer “Who, What, When, Where, and Why” questions:

  • Who are the recipients of the email, and why is it relevant to include each in the “To” field?
  • What conclusion or course of action was reached by the group? What happened during a meeting?
  • When is a response needed? When is the deadline for a particular project?
  • Where is the meeting going to take place?
  • Why is it relevant to share the information contained in the email?

Writing Tips

Some general tips when composing emails are:

  • Use complete sentences, proper words, grammar, and spelling
  • Use exclamation points sparingly
  • Do not use all caps as this implies shouting at the recipient and no one wants to be shouted at in an email
  • Always include punctuation and the full version of words, even those that are often used in personal electronic communications
  • Avoid abbreviations and limit the use of acronyms, unless the recipients are well versed in company, or industry, specific shortcuts
  • Be clear, succinct, and direct
  • Use the active voice rather than the passive voice
  • Display competence and professionalism by writing a clear message, not by using buzzwords or unnecessary industry jargon that clutters the message
  • If it is appropriate, use bullet points to convey a series of data points
  • Customize the message for the recipient or the audience (in the case of a mass email)
  • Avoid sarcasm and other hard-to-decipher tones that may not be conveyed clearly via email
  • Emoticons do not belong in professional emails
  • Avoid using non-standard formatting techniques, like colors, pictures, or fancy fonts, as these distract from the message’s content and may be limited by recipients’ mobile devices, email programs, or spam filters

Language and Tone Tips

Communicate your ideas thoughtfully and diplomatically, and clearly understand others’ points of view before responding. Remember that conflicts—even those actual or perceived conflicts via email—are situational, not personal, and your response to the conflict speaks volumes about your professionalism. Always avoid insults, sarcasm, and derogatory language, even in jest, as such language is particularly prone to misinterpretation via email.

Reviewing and Editing

  • Proofread the content and reread your message both to yourself and aloud
  • Attempt to provide more brevity and clarity, if possible
  • Ask a trusted peer or colleague to review especially important emails
    • This is neither advised nor efficient for every written communication. But for especially important emails, complex emails, or emails to a large group of unfamiliar recipients, it may be extremely beneficial.
  • Edit the technicalities by using a tone that is both professional and friendly (the two are not mutually exclusive)
  • Make sure to check all spelling twice and enable spell check via your email provider and choose to automatically perform a spell check prior to sending a message, but remember that spell check does not correct every mistake, especially homonyms or names
  • Always triple-check the spelling of names and gender agreement of salutations
  • Wait a few minutes before sending your email, especially if the email is in response to a sensitive or explosive topic
  • Remember that you do not want to sacrifice professionalism for speed

Email Signatures

When should you include an email signature? Generally speaking, business emails should conclude with a simple summary of the sender’s company, position, and contact information, commonly called an email signature. When correspondence is ongoing among recipients in the same email chain, including a full signature with each reply is not necessary. Consider instead including an abbreviated signature with limited contact information.

In general, an email signature is not a resume. Limit the content to three to five lines of text (at the most) to maintain professionalism and avoid narcissism. An email signature is not an ideal place to display personality. They should convey a professional tone and include only necessary information. All email signatures should include the sender’s preferred method of contact (for example a phone number or an email address) rather than every possible way to get in touch with him. The role of the email signature is to provide quick access to identifying information of the sender and pertinent contact information for the ease of the recipient. Credentialing abbreviations (CPA, LLM) may be included, although titles (Ms., Dr.) are usually omitted.

For additional information on sending business emails, check out Becker’s “Email Communications” online course.

Adina Hannan on Linkedin
Senior CPE Product Manager at Becker