Professional Development: Email Etiquette and the Art of Business Communication

Story by Era Sundar • Audio Editor

Using email is one of the most popular Internet activities performed by American adults.

The 2011 Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 92 percent of American adults have experience using email — that’s pretty much everyone. A smaller but still significant 61 percent, use it every day.

These results hold true across the board. According to the study, daily email use is popular with everyone, from 18-year-olds to grandparents, and blue collar workers to executives.

And email isn’t just for personal chit chat. Because of its speed and accessibility, it’s become the preferred mode of business correspondence.

However, just because most people know how to use email, that doesn’t mean they do it well.

Jennifer Lazarow, a training consultant with the Professional Development Center at the University of Texas at Austin, said email is relatively new to the business world. Because it’s been on the scene for less than 20 years, people are still figuring out etiquette and protocol.

Although letter writing was taught regularly in schools, modern courses on email writing are not as prevalent. Lazarow, who teaches email workshops, said the tone of an email is easily misinterpreted, so it’s better to err on the side of formality.

“Start with Dear Mr., Miss or Ms., and if you don’t know their gender, use both first and last names,” she said. “I’ve never heard anyone complain that they received an email that was too formal. It’s usually the other way around — too casual.”

Lazarow said it is best to let the recipients’ responses dictate the tone. If they answer using your first name, then first names are acceptable in future correspondence.

When ending an email, Lazarow said always sign off with “Thank you,” “Regards” or similar closing and include a signature block that lists your first and last names and contact information.

Lazarow is not a fan of typing in all caps or using emoticons, and suggests keeping paragraphs short. After three lines of text, it is difficult for the eyes to keep track, she said. And bullet points are a good alternative to long lists.

Lazarow said complaints or rants about coworkers — or anyone else, for that matter — should not be sent in emails.

“It will get back to them, and it makes you look bad, rather than that person.”

Suppose you commit the unthinkable and send an obnoxious email that’s offensive or hurtful — then what?

At, Richie Frieman said, “Take the blame. People will respect you more for honesty than trying to [weasel] your way out of it.”

Frieman offered this example apology, “About that message — it was wrong… It was just a very poor choice of action. Hopefully you will accept my sincerest apology.”

Extreme faux pas aside, there are certain practices that should be carried out to respect time constraints, especially in the work environment.

Vinu Yamunan is an information technology (IT) consultant who deals with a high volume of emails daily. He said getting to the point quickly is a must.

“If you want something to be done, state it in the first few lines of the email,” he said. “Don’t expect people to read all the way to the bottom of a long email.”

Yamunan also cautions against being a company spammer. “Copy” people on a need to know basis and choose “reply all” only when everyone in the chain needs to be kept in the loop. When simply saying thank you, “Just send it to the person directly,” he said.

One of Yamunan’s pet peeves is when subject lines don’t reflect the content of an email. When subject lines are used correctly, they can help busy people respond to emails quickly and efficiently.

David McMurrey, department chair of business and technical communications at Austin Community College, said the subject line should include a clear, concise description of what the email is about and what action is required.

When corresponding with a professor or classmates, it’s a good idea for students to include the class name and course number in the subject line. This makes the email easily recognizable in a crowded inbox.

Overflowing inboxes are common, and attempts to respond to everyone often result in emails being written in a hurry. For this reason McMurrey said it’s important to check for the things that spell-check can’t catch — before pressing the send key.

“Proof for clarity and emission of words such as not,” he said. “There is a big difference between I am going to fire you and I am not going to fire you.”

Because everyone is so busy, it’s not always possible to respond to emails right away. It is best to acknowledge the receipt of an email and give an estimate as to when you might be able to reply.

There are times, however, when email is not the best form of communication.

“If it takes more than one round trip to resolve the issue or if tones become hostile, break the email chain and make a phone call,” Yamunan said. “If the phone call does not resolve it, get everyone in the same room and work it out.”

Whether corresponding by email, phone, traditional letter or in person; courtesy, respect and professionalism are essential.


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