feeding my own misguided insanity

Saving Your Corporate Career with The Art of Email Warfare

More often than not, our corporate email experience is more akin to strategic warfare than benign correspondence. As the office pressures increase and the landslide of email begins to drive our patience thin and email etiquette to nonexistence, it becomes easier to make mistakes that could weigh heavily on your career prospects and professional reputation.

Big R, little r, forward, spam, trash, ignore, file, meetings, distribution groups, requests — and the list goes on. We’re so overwhelmed with the never-ending stream of email that we have little time to finish the task at hand let alone the umpteenth new requests that have just come in.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

— Sun Tzu[1]

Email isn’t the best technology for every topic of conversation, but if you absolutely must engage using this medium, here are a few email etiquette tips that will help you survive the ravages of corporate warfare:

  1. Never use BCC when replying to an email. If the BCC addressee isn’t paying attention and doesn’t notice that they are on the BCC line, they may accidentally Reply All and blow the lid off your covert operation. It’s much safer to Forward the email once you’ve sent it to the original audience. BCC was a great tool when we still operated in the physical world of letters, but it is far too simple to make mistakes in the virtual.
  2. Brevity is your friend. Don’t bore the audience, get to the point. You’re more than likely to get a quick reply to a paragraph than an essay.
  3. Use Numbered Bullet points. Whenever you need to discuss multiple topics, it is easier to structure your mail by using numbered bullet points. Similarly, if you need to refer to an idea or topic later in the email, it is far simpler to quote the bullet number rather than requoting the entire topic name.
  4. Always Forward the email if sharing with 3rd party. Unless you’re replying to all/most of the recipients who are already on the TO or CC lines, instead of deleting their addresses and replacing them with another recipient, use forward instead. Forwarding the mail will automatically remove all recipients and you’ll spare yourself an embarrassing situation in case you accidentally didn’t remove everyone from the address line.
  5. Implement Send Delays. If your mail client is capable of Send Delays, turn them on. How many times have you sent an email only to realise a few moments later that a vital part was missing or that you’ve forgot to put someone else in the address line? Even a one minute send delay would allow you to go back and fix the problem. Send delays still allow you to push the Send button as per usual, but the mail doesn’t exit the Outbox until the delay time expires.
  6. Use the Do Not Deliver Before feature. Most people look at mail from top to bottom. If you want your email to stand out and not be lost amongst the other hundreds of email threads, try using the Do Not Deliver Before feature. It’s useful when sending email to anyone who has regular working hours. For instance, if you know that a colleague takes their lunch between 1pm and 2pm each day, it stands to reason that an email which arrives in their mailbox at 2:15 will more than likely be opened immediately because it will be sitting on top of the pile. This is particularly useful if you’re working with teams of people in different time zones and want to be strategic about the time of delivery.
  7. Request Send and Delivery receipts. Although I very rarely use this feature because I find it annoying, you should get familiar with it. At times, you don’t necessarily need an answer to an email straight away, but you might need to know whether the mail has been delivered and/or read. If the topic is sensitive or politically charged, Delivery and Read receipts may reveal people who the mail was forwarded to after the original recipient received it. And although delivery receipts are rarely enabled on internet-facing servers in order to protect against forged denial of service attacks[2], they are likely to be enabled within the internal corporate environment.
  8. Never send email when you’re angry. Sending email when angry is a sure way to overreact and potentially convey something that is going to hurt your career prospects. We’re all emotional beings, so by all means draft the email and get all that anger out of your system. Then sleep on it. Don’t send it, keep it in your Draft folder until you’ve had a chance to read (and edit) it the following day. 99% of the time the issue won’t be as grave as it was the previous night and you’ll spare yourself difficult, and often embarrassing, situations.
  9. Never send email when you’re tired or under the influence of a chemical(s) of your choice. Same as number 8 — Sleep on it.
  10. CC-ing someone’s manager may be a good motivator for the recipient. But try to avoid it unless you’re sure that cultural differences won’t play into the transaction. Some organizations operate within a flat hierarchy while others are very structured. Depending on the culture, certain people may interpret the inclusion of a manager as offensive or suggestive of incompetence. Similarly, hierarchical companies may not appreciate the “going to the top” approach because sidestepping due process may go against corporate or social fabric.
  11. Avoid Reply All to company-wide announcements. If you’re the recipient of a company-wide announcement, try to resist the Reply All. It’s OK, we don’t all need to know how happy you are that Martin just had a baby, or that you’re still alive and probably doing your job. It just looks tacky, and comes across as a “Look at me, I’m here too.” Reply to Martin in a separate email and congratulate him yourself. Similarly, if you’re the sender of a company-wide mail, ensure that you tick “Do Not Reply All” option in order to stop idiots replying to everyone and causing unnecessary email storms from one end of the globe to the other.
  12. Use Skype or IM if you need a quick answer. Getting a quick ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ may take considerably longer if sent by email. If your IM platform doesn’t automatically archive past conversations, cut and paste the transcript into a mail and send to your colleague as a record of what transpired.
  13. Be respectful of personal information. An email address is public knowledge, but you must understand that people who have signed up to your distribution list might not want their email, or their participation for that matter, advertised to everyone else. Make sure you place all recipients on the BCC line so as to hide the identities of all parties. Even if they attempt to Reply All, the only person that is visible will be the original sender.
  14. Sometimes Phone is better. You may want to avoid sensitive topics being immortalised within the corporate email archival system. Writing down negative opinions about colleagues, clients or management might not be in your best interest. Remember, email can be easily forwarded. If you want to have a candid conversation, have it in person. If face-to-face conversation isn’t possible use the phone. The trouble with large corporations is that political allegiances are difficult to spot and aren’t always obvious. Don’t become a statistic that inadvertently passes on information to the enemy. Word of mouth is one thing, hard and irrefutable proof of your comments is something else completely.
  15. Phone for Complex topics. It may take you far longer to type, send and wait for a reply to an email than calling directly on the phone. If the topic is complex and involves many facets, some of which require the other person to perform actions, always follow up the call with an email. Imagine you’ve just finished a wonderful conversation and the colleague agreed to do something by a certain time. Cover your own ass by sending an email to the colleague in which you outline what was discussed and list the agreed upon actions. Some people genuinely have a poor memory, while others will “conveniently” forget the whole thing and deny the conversation ever took place.
  16. Try to not use email to gather / gain consensus. It’s a complex topic as in point 15. Use it to set the meeting where everyone affirms consensus. Use the phone to gain that consensus prior to the meeting. Wash, rinse, repeat. [credit: Scott]

Don’t end up like this guy, jobless and without a future, because he didn’t follow simple email etiquette:

THIS is the scathing letter of rejection a recruiter sent to a job-seeker – and 4000 others – in a reply-all snafu.

Manchester-based Gary Chaplin is now seeking a new job himself after being forced to quit his job, and £200,000 salary, for his expletive-ridden message. Manos Katsampoukas mass-mailed recruiters, a move that lit Mr Chaplin’s short fuse and resulted in a nasty response, the Daily Mail reports.

But Mr Chaplin, in addition to over-stepping the mark, made the cardinal sin: he replied all. — Read more…

Feel free to contribute.

  1. Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who is traditionally believed, and who is most likely, to have authored The Art of War, an influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy. ^
  2. In computing, a denial-of-service attack (DoS attack) or distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS attack) is an attempt to make a computer or network resource unavailable to its intended users. ^


Dalia Marin, & Thierry Verdier. (2010). Corporate Hierarchies and International Trade: Theory and Evidence. Presented at the SCIFI-GLOW Collaborative Project, European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development. Retrieved from http://scifiglow.cepr.org/files/working_papers/Corporate%20Hierarchies.pdf
Sun Tzu. (2012, May 5).Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sun_Tzu&oldid=490528079
The Art of War. (2012, May 5).Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Art_of_War&oldid=490718220

, , , , , , Business, Thoughts

5 Comments → “Saving Your Corporate Career with The Art of Email Warfare”

  1. Scott 12 years ago   Reply

    Contribution: Try to not use email to gather / gain consensus. It’s a complex topic as in point 15. Use it to set the meeting where everyone affirms consensus. Use the phone to gain that consensus prior to the meeting. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    Thanks again Shem for the outstanding advice!

  2. Ben B 12 years ago   Reply

    To point 14 and 15, my office rule is that if there are more than 4 responses to the one email, it goes to a conference call.

  3. Peter 12 years ago   Reply

    If you wish all the questions in your email to be responded to, only ask one question per message.

  4. Declan M 12 years ago   Reply

    Very well written and so correct., also I like writings on journalism

Leave a Reply