In my daily work as an academic advisor in higher education, a large percentage of my professional communication is composed via email correspondence. Though it is a part of daily routine, email correspondence from students who are training to enter the work world as competent professionals are often littered with barriers to effective communication.
Whether you are a student making the leap to the “real world,” applying for jobs, or a new professional, what can you do to project a more polished image? Start by considering these 10 common pitfalls in professional email etiquette, and learn how each may be damaging your professional image.
- Know when email is appropriate. Is great detail or explanation required? Can tone be easily misconstrued? Is the subject matter time sensitive? If the answer is yes to any of the previous questions, email may not be the appropriate venue. However, if you are contacting someone who is difficult to reach in person or by phone, asking a simple question, or providing informational items, email is probably most appropriate.
- Don’t assume the recipient knows you. Especially if the email is your first contact with the individual, or the recipient will be receiving a high volume of emails, don’t assume they know you. I may be the only person by my name who is an advisor at my institution, but there may be dozens of similar first names in the hundreds of students I have contact with each semester. This problem is compounded when the institutional email or an email without identifying information (like firstname.lastname@example.org) is used. Refrain from any use of a personal email address if an institutional or business email is provided. If a personal email must be used, keep it clean and practical (email@example.com).
- Don’t assume the recipient knows all the details. “I need to drop that class,” is a common email request I will receive. Certainly worth honoring, but such a request is inherent with an entire host of issues. Namely the absence of key details. Whose class am I dropping? Which class? This goes for any form of professional communication. Take the time to provide as much detail as possible on the front end. This will eliminate time and effort taken later in the “back and forth”, and convey that you are organized and pay attention to detail.
- Include full contact information. Consistent with your professional image, be sure and sign off with not only your full name, but also any contact information that may be helpful for the recipient in getting back in touch with you. The content of some emails may be involve a request to contact you by phone or through another form of communication.
- Don’t use text speak. Just because you may be composing the email on a mobile device or tablet, does not mean it is professional to use “text speak” in a professional email, ever. When you are composing emails from these devices, it is imperative to proofread before hitting send, as most now contain predictive text technology that may incorrectly finish words and change the message or tone entirely.
- Forget about backgrounds, crazy fonts, and colors. Keep it black and white, and simple. Extra colors and backgrounds only serve to make it more difficult to the reader, and make them less likely to respond or take the email seriously as professional communication – especially in an age where scams are prominent. Fonts that are not standard are distracting, hard to read, and make you come across as silly.
- Use “out of office” correctly. This can be an important feature in email, especially if you are planning to be away for any extended period of time outside of normal anticipated working hours. Rather than just say you are away, include alternative contacts so those who are trying to contact you can still conduct business if needed. Use it with discretion though. I once had a student who had their email set full-time to auto-reply with “I will consider your message and respond accordingly.” He would then never reply. You can only cry wolf so many times.
- Beware of auto-fill. I often receive emails not intended for me because of this very issue. Most email systems will begin to generate options to auto-fill the “To:” field as you begin typing the address, based on previous emails you’ve sent to. Be sure to read these options carefully, and review before clicking send. It may be the difference between sending an email to your wife or the President. You don’t need to be told these are entirely different audiences.
- Don’t say things you wouldn’t say in person. Some of the more intriguing email exchanges I’ve experienced include those from individuals who will display more aggression or unprofessionalism in an email, but will never correspond that way in person. Don’t act in a way or say things that you wouldn’t normally in conversation. First of all, it won’t do you any favors in getting a response, and second, it may damage your rapport with that person in the flesh.
- When in doubt, err on the formal side. Using “Mr.” or “Ms.”, or the full first name instead of assuming a shorter form should always be done in cases in which you are unsure. When applying for a job, stick with the formal “To Whom It May Concern”. As communication progresses, certain formalities may be dropped, but initiating contact informally sets the bar below a professional standard.
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