Email Etiquette & Ethics in an Era of Constant Connection
January 18, 2017
In a world driven by fast-paced communication, email has become an integral part of business correspondence. Not only is email a key way of communicating with colleagues and clients, it is also inherently tied to a firm’s identity.
With so much time and energy spent on emails, there are a number of practices that every professional should apply as part of an effective communication strategy. The volume of messages sent and received each day means there is a higher likelihood of making embarrassing and even damaging mistakes.
Email related errors can have serious professional consequences, such as misunderstandings with clients or loss of reputation. As a result, mastering email etiquette is essential to achieving success. The aim is to develop the habit of crafting a well-composed message with the following elements in mind.
Pick a specific subject line
Every email should have a clear, direct subject line that eliminates the risk of the recipient having to guess what the message is about, or worse, ignore it completely. The email’s subject should capture the reader’s attention as it will determine the priority it gets from the recipient.
“People often decide whether to open an email based on the subject line,” according to career coach Barbara Pachter, the author of “The Essentials of Business Etiquette.” “Choose one that lets readers know you are addressing their concerns or business issues.”
For example, instead of using the curt “Hello” or vague “Some important issues to discuss,” consider subject lines like “Response needed by 2/12/2017” or “Following up on housing project proposal.” The latter two may be more effective as they convey the key information the recipient needs to know. The recipient will also appreciate being able to estimate the amount of time and effort the email needs.
Be aware of tone
Business emails should have a professional tone. While the prevailing assumption may be that email allows informality, the opposite is true. When drafting an email, it is best to leave out humor and sarcasm as they can easily be misconstrued without context from facial expressions or vocal cues. On-screen language is some of the easiest to misunderstand. Additionally, be aware that people from different cultures are likely to write and speak differently to help prevent miscommunication.
Perhaps the best way to avoid confusion is to be straightforward. On the other hand, emails that are too direct can come off as more abrupt than intended and convey irritation to the reader. A useful habit is to read the message out loud before sending to make sure it does not sound harsh.
Proofread and double check
This step is perhaps one of the most important when it comes to avoiding mistakes. Proofread every message to check for grammar, punctuation, capitalization and spelling errors when composing emails. Such mistakes will not go unnoticed by email recipients, and the sender and their business may be judged for making them.
Reread the email draft before hitting send and refine it if necessary. An email riddled with spelling and grammar errors can imply laziness or incompetency.
Provide timely responses to emails
Because emails have a tendency to pile up and be overlooked if they are not addressed in a timely manner, business communications should be checked and responded to regularly. Even without having a complete answer immediately, try to inform the recipient that their message has been received and you are working on getting back to them.
By failing to respond promptly, there is a risk of appearing indifferent or careless. In addition, professionalism and courtesy in business email correspondence can go a long way in gaining an advantage over competitors who may be complacent or uninformed about email etiquette.
Add email addresses last
Adding email addresses after composing the message ensures the email is not sent before it is finished. Even when replying to an email, it is a useful habit to delete the recipient’s email address and add it back only when the message is reviewed and ready to be sent.
Double check that the correct person’s email address has been selected to ensure unintended recipients do not receive the message. It is easy to choose or type the wrong name, especially with the predictive nature of the “To” field in many email services. While this can be embarrassing to both the sender and the person who receives the email by mistake, it can also lead to a detrimental disclosure of confidential information.
Email is an indispensable tool for professionals, among them attorneys. It allows lawyers to communicate with colleagues within their law firm, as well as with clients and opposing counsel. However, its prevalence also raises a number of ethical questions for attorneys as there are inherent risks associated with using email. Being too quick to hit the “Send” button can lead to negative consequences such as embarrassment, upset clients, breach of confidentiality, income loss or malpractice claims.
Maintaining attorney-client privilege
The use of email adds a new layer of complexity to the issue of confidential communication. Perhaps the biggest risk that email poses is that of protected information falling into the wrong hands. The attorney-client relationship is based on the duty of confidentiality that lawyers owe to their clients. Attorneys are responsible for taking reasonable precautions to ensure they do not inadvertently disclose a client’s confidential information, no matter the form of communication used.
The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility concluded in 2011 that lawyers may use unencrypted emails as an accepted method of transmitting protected client information without violating confidentiality rules.
The committee noted that it is the attorney’s ethical duty to warn the client about the risk of email communication using a device, computer or email account that may be susceptible to third-party access. There are several considerations under which a lawyer may be ethically obligated to warn the client about sending or receiving emails that may compromise confidentiality. They include but are not limited to:
- The client having already used email or expressed an intention to do so.
- The client having access to a workplace device or system.
- The employer or a third party having access to the client’s email communications.
- Having workplace policies and jurisdiction laws that do not protect the privacy of the client’s personal email communications.
Another email related ethical concern are web bugs. A web bug is a device embedded invisibly in email to track a recipient’s actions. Email senders can use them to find out a variety of information, including:
- When, how often and how long an email was viewed
- Whether the recipient forwarded the email or attachment
- The recipient’s approximate geographical location
In October 2016, the Alaska Bar Association Ethics Committee joined the New York State Bar Association in declaring that web bugs are not “ethically permissible.” The latter association issued the only other existing ethics opinion on the issue in 2001. Both organizations determined that attorneys are not allowed to plant web bugs to track emails sent to opposing counsel. Even if the use of web bugs is disclosed, it violates ethical rules that prohibit lawyers from engaging in misrepresentation and deceit.
Web bugs can destroy confidentiality by providing the sender access to information that is protected by the attorney-client relationship. For example, a web-bugged email containing a draft settlement document could give the sender valuable insight into what pages of the agreement the opposing counsel and his client found the most important.
The use of email in attorney-client communications can also give rise to unauthorized disclosure. Many email services have a feature that allows names to be suggested as the sender begins to type in the “To” field. While this is a convenient option to have, the suggested name may not be the intended recipient. Habits such as hitting “Reply to all” or attaching the wrong document to an email may also result in the accidental disclosure of information that the sender meant to keep confidential.
Certain email providers such as Gmail allow erroneously sent messages to be recalled. However, in many cases undoing one’s actions may not be possible. According to the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer who receives an inadvertently sent email related to a client’s case should immediately inform the sender. As different states have varying laws on inadvertent communication, the attorney who sent the email must then review the relevant jurisdiction’s rules.
Email undoubtedly facilities communication with clients and other professionals. When it comes to day-to-day email correspondence, creating a lasting good impression is invaluable to building trust and confidence. Awareness of email ethics and best practices will help diminish its accompanying potential pitfalls and ultimately enrich the attorney-client relationship.