Best Practices for Professional Email

Natalie Lundsteen offers some basic tips to help you have clear and confident electronic communication.

February 5, 2018
 
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My institution recently ran a comprehensive career-development program for our graduate students and postdocs. One of the workshop modules that our Ph.D.s valued most provided a general overview of communicating in the workplace. It advised them on some best practices to help smooth their transition to the next career destination.

No matter what career path you choose, communication is a skill you will need to use in every job role. The way you communicate with other people reflects your professionalism -- often a vague and nebulous term, but one that generally refers to the conduct and qualities an individual exhibits at work.

It does take time to learn the nuances of behavior in any new setting, and workplaces are no exception. You will have many things to learn when you start a new job, and not everything is clear-cut, especially when you are trying to figure out what “professional” means in that particular place. For example, in every work setting, you will find both formal and tacit practices -- also known as “the way we do things around here.” Those workplace practices might be official policies, like how much vacation is allowed or methods of reporting sick time. But there are also unwritten rules in every job setting that might be about expected work time or output, or a culture that affects the way emails are sent (or not), or even what’s considered acceptable casual Friday attire.

While you’ll have many important communication topics to think about when starting a new professional gig, email is probably the most important -- and omnipresent -- mode of workplace communication. The average American worker receives 122 emails per day. Email is fast, sometimes too fast, and continuous. It never stops, and it seems we rarely take time to think about the why and how of this communication mode. Email also seems to be one of the most common stumbling blocks that graduate students and postdocs come across in their professional communication. Here are some basic tips to help you with clear, confident, professional electronic communication in your current working situation, as well as when you move to a new workplace.

Consider when email is appropriate. Don’t add useless messages to that average of 122 emails per day. If you can talk to someone on your team and have a quick question, why not walk over and ask them? Email is best when it’s short and sweet, especially when it doesn’t waste time. If your message is long and complicated, go have a conversation -- don’t start a back-and-forth over email.

This is something I observe often when postdocs and graduate students organize an event or an activity with an outside guest speaker. They might feel hesitant about impinging on that honored guest’s time, but by attempting to manage all communication about a complicated event via email, they end up sending way too many emails, thus irritating the speaker and wasting that person’s valuable time -- even though the goal was the exact opposite. Best way to manage a complex task: send a short email message and ask if you can have a five-minute conversation to confirm details. And you should recognize that if you need a response quickly, sending an email at 5 p.m. on a Friday is usually annoying to the recipient, as is sending messages on major holidays. Last Dec. 24 at 11:59 p.m., I received an email requesting I review a complete set of academic job application documents. I would have given hat request a much better reception a day or two later.

Also, confidential information should never be shared over email. Keep in mind that anything you send in an email could be forwarded without your knowledge. Finally, emails sent in haste are usually the ones that you will regret!

Start with the subject. Keep subject lines short and to the point, but also provide clarity. Don’t send messages with vague subject lines like “Hello,” “Meeting Tomorrow” or “Query.” But, on the flip side, don’t ramble and write a small subject line novella. Say something like “FYI: Budget Update” if your message is simply providing information for a colleague or “Input Needed: Finalizing Seminar Series Dates” if you are asking something specific of the recipient. Sometimes it’s helpful to include a date for time-sensitive messages.

Your workplace may use a certain protocol, such as abbreviations or formats, to help people filter and file messages. For example, any messages I send to my graduate students and postdocs always include [CAREER DEVELOPMENT] in the subject line.

Address the recipient correctly. Email protocols vary among workplaces, and the way colleagues address each other is easy to observe, as you are sure to receive a number of emails before it’s your turn to send one. It is always a good practice to err on the side of formality when initially addressing someone over email, such as using “Dr.” as a salutation for someone with a Ph.D. Use “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.” when writing women.

If you know the person well, use a first name. If you don’t know if Pat is male or female, it’s fine to write “Dear Pat” (or do some internet sleuthing to see if you can determine if they are a Patrick or a Patricia). Always spell names correctly. Google is a great tool for figuring out this kind of information.

Know how to include other people. “CC” (carbon copy) and “BCC” (blind carbon copy) allow you to send your message to multiple people. They refer to antiquated methods of communication when typewriters used sheets of carbon paper to make duplicate copies of documents. I was surprised to discover that many students and postdocs don’t understand what those email functions are. When cc’ing people on an email, the CC list is visible to all other recipients. But with BCC, only the sender can see the list of BCC recipients.

For example, if [email protected] and [email protected] are on the BCC list, neither Natalie nor Mike will know that the other received the email, but both of them will be able to see everything else in that message -- including the CC list and the contents of the email. BCC is best used when sending a message to a large group of people, which makes it more efficient for recipients to get right to the message content without having to scroll through a long list of names.

Consider your tone. Words can definitely be misconstrued over email. Email is a flat communication mode that eliminates body language or emotion, so certain words or phrases can make messages sound abrupt or demanding. Recently, one of our alumni, who was coming to the campus to give a career talk, was very taken aback by a message from a graduate student that began, “Per our discussion.” Many phrases that are no big deal in direct conversation can sound condescending or disdainful when seen on a computer screen.

If you would like feedback or discussion on whatever you are emailing about, offer to meet in person. Email is not the best place for lengthy pondering. Another good rule of thumb for email: if you are hesitant to deliver the message in person, it is not appropriate to email. It is a nice courtesy to close your message with a thank-you, or at least “Regards.”

Give context. Why are you sending this message? What action is required of the recipient, if any? If you are writing to someone you don’t know, explain briefly who you are and what you want. If you are emailing a colleague, make it clear if you need a response or an action, or are simply providing information (in which case that “FYI” subject line is helpful). Provide action items or asks early in the message, and don’t make your message longer than it needs to be. Use bullet points or numbering to organize longer messages, and give deadlines (or requests for completion or response) whenever possible.

Build in response time. If you have been waiting more than a few days for a response, don’t take it personally. Email gremlins have been known to trap outgoing messages, send things to spam or junk folders, or just plain delete. There could be any number of reasons why someone has not responded. A short, polite email, such as, “Natalie, I’m following up on the message I sent you last week inviting you to the seminar in two days” is one way to gently nudge a response.

Don’t forget to use an out-of-office message to inform about possible delays in your own responses. And finally, if you know someone is eagerly anticipating an answer from you, but you just can’t get to that message in a timely fashion, send a brief note acknowledging the message and noting that you will respond fully in a few days.

These suggestions are by no means comprehensive, and you should remember that every workplace has its own professional communication practices and culture. For more helpful advice on navigating communication in the modern workplace, including delving deeper into the unwritten rules of email, check out the book The New Rules of Work by Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew, founders of TheMuse.com.

Bio

Image of Graduate Career Consortium logo.Natalie Lundsteen is assistant dean for career and professional development at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She is a member, and currently serves as president-elect, of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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