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Updated by Amy Armstrong on Oct 30, 2019
Headline for How You're Being a Jerk Over Email Without Realizing It
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How You're Being a Jerk Over Email Without Realizing It

Allow me to preface this list with a few caveats:

  • Everyone makes honest mistakes because we're all busy, distracted, etc. If you recognize yourself in any of this, don't let it ruin your day. Just endeavor to do better next time.
  • Being offended by the "tone" of someone else's email or just outright rudeness never justifies going on a vigilante mission against that person and his/her career. Some people just aren't good in print. Maybe it's a form of Autism that just isn't recognized yet. Who knows? If you know better, take the high road.
  • Having said that, full disclosure: I've sent my share of "nastygrams" to people; probably more than my share. I don't recommend it, but that's not what I'm talking about here. Unfortunately, what follows is a list of things people do when they think they're being totally polite.

I created this list in the hope that the people who have done these things to me and my friends were just unaware of how some seemingly innocuous choices pre-Send can affect people. In the end, what you want is to communicate your message clearly and effectively and to motivate positive action. That's usually easier to do if you don't ruffle feathers along the way.


Not pressing "reply all" when someone CCs a colleague on a message to you or includes that person in the "To" field.

Not pressing "reply all" when someone CCs a colleague on a message to you or includes that person in the "To" field.

A lot of teams are remote now, and that means quite a bit of communication occurs by email. If someone is copying a colleague on a message to you, they are implying that the other person needs to be included on all communication related to that thread. If you take the other person off of the thread and just respond to the sender (repeatedly) it makes the person who was cc-ed feel like you're snubbing them, and it places the additional burden on the sender to wonder what your damage is with your colleague and to forward everything to them anyway. Of course, email is a less than ideal way to handle remote teams. Applications like Slack are much better for that purpose, but a lot of people of a certain generation are slow to adopt those.
photo credit: LeJyBy Rejection via photopin (license)


Replying All when you only need to communicate with one person

Replying All when you only need to communicate with one person

No, I'm not contradicting myself. Sometimes you really do need to just address one person. For example, if an email goes out from a colleague who is working remotely because she is recovering from surgery and you want to let her know that you hope she feels better soon, you don't need to continue to copy the rest of the office on that email. As email sins go, this one is relatively minor, but to go back to my ethics class in college, if you run the scenario through your head of, "What if everyone did that?" You all end up with a lot of extra messages that aren't even intended for you. In a world of limited inbox capacity and limited time, this creates quite a time blackhole. In this case, please, just reply to the sender. It's fine.

photo credit: Christoph Scholz E-Mails @ Computer via photopin (license)


Volunteering someone for a task in a group email without letting them know first

Volunteering someone for a task in a group email without letting them know first

This often happens between bosses and subordinates. Cindy the administrative assistant grabs a refill for her coffee, returns to her desk, and finds an email from her boss, Natalie, announcing that Cindy is the primary contact for the Puppies for Psoriasis Sufferers Silent Auction, or whatever the latest workplace feel-good initiative happens to be. Poor Cindy starts getting a flooded inbox and her phone is ringing off the hook with questions about this initiative when it's the the first she has heard of it. This isn't a great way to make anyone feel good about anything. As a supervisor, you might be thinking, "Well, they are my subordinates and they are to do as they're told and that's that. I went through it and now they need to." Okay, that's one perspective, but did you like it? Probably not. Nobody likes that. Also, it creates a lot of bad feeling that is totally necessary. Even just taking a minute to call your subordinate to let them know that you needed to choose someone for this task and you thought they would be the best fit pre-email is better than doing it this way. See? You can still show dominance and do it nicely.

25 Tips for Perfecting Your E-mail Etiquette

"Do you have bad netiquette? In other words, are you appalling colleagues with your awful e-mail manners? Clean-up your act with these etiquette tips from the experts." via Inc.

Five Rude Emails You Send Every Day

Even the most likeable and well-mannered among us can still look like jerks in an email. Writing an email that comes across just like you do in person is a fine art. During a conversation, you adjust your tone, facial expression, gestures and posture in order to fit the mood of [...]

Use These 11 Words in Emails and You'll Sound Spectacularly Rude

"Sorry, but you don't always come across the way you think in emails. This list, compiled by experts, is actually fascinating." via Inc. The commentary is actually pretty funny. I think it reinforces the idea that the easily offended among us might need to get over themselves a little bit. Still, these are good things to be mindful of.

Are Your Emails Unintentionally Rude?

Why, and how, to avoid being rude in your online communication


Using all caps (or all lower case.)

Using all caps (or all lower case.)

I once received an email from a supervisor regarding "expectations of all employees." The expectations were attached as a Word document and they were ALL TYPED IN CAPS. When I commented on that later, she claimed not to even have realized it was all in caps. There's probably a connection between the style of management that would compel one to send something like that out in the first place and being oblivious to case in the document. However, the managerial comment might have been better received if it had been in normal sentence-case.

Also, not to jump on the bandwagon of implying that group-shaming should force anyone at work to do anything, but when a message is meant to have more than 5 sets of eyeballs on it, that's a good time to be extra careful to check things like spelling, grammar, and what case the message is in.

The other problem with sending something like "expectations of all employees" out to all direct reports is it gives the indirect message that someone in the group (you won't say who) is failing to meet expectations and that by putting it out there to everyone in writing in a way that seems clear, they are all now being held to this standard. Most of the time, if someone sends a message like this out, it's usually in response to pressure coming from above them to get employees to shape-up or ship-out because an upper layer of leadership is displeased for some reason and wants everything to change immediately. This is a sign of toxic work culture and anyone at any level is best off getting out as soon as possible. The tougher part of this is when you're part of the leadership team in a dysfunctional organization, every message like this is an exercise in how your own ethics are coming through at work. This isn't an acceptable way to treat other people, and it's coming from a set of unrealistic expectations set forth by someone who isn't directly in touch with your team. As a manager, you do have the opportunity to do the right thing and remind those above you that while the mission of your organization is important and that you are behind furthering it, it's important to keep in mind that any team includes multiple points of view and it takes time to get everyone on board. Nothing is going to change overnight. In other words: if a few people don't seem to be getting it, meet with them and see if there's a way to reach an understanding in a healthy way that makes everyone feel good about the work they're doing.
photo credit: Creative Commons Photos For London & Brighton Has City of London lost its voice with Brexit? via photopin (license)