Five email blunders you really don't want to make

By: Monica Seeley

Date: 6 May 2011

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Email consultant Monica Seeley explains five common email blunders to watch for.

As a consultant and coach in email best practice, I often see examples of amazing email blunders which have cost an organisation dearly.

They might have suffered financially (because of a lost sale), but often reputational damage is the result - and it's hard to put an exact figure on that.

Here are the top five blunders I see time and again, along with some simple tips to help you reduce the risk of making such a blunder yourself:

  • Sending an email to the wrong person.
    If your email program has an 'auto complete' feature, it is very easy to send an email to the wrong Monica Seeley and find you have disclosed either confidential or sensitive information. Recently one client told me they had learnt about a colleague’s affair this way. Another said their IT manager frequently received information destined for the Company Secretary and vice-versa.

How to manage the risk: check all names very carefully, or switch off the auto fill function. Forwarding an email and disclosing confidential information.
In haste you forward an email (often containing many replies in a long email chain). Then you realise that one of the early messages contains either information people should not see (e.g. price, product specification), or worse, a comment about the person to whom you are forwarding the email. The resulting damage can be anything from a lost sale to an industrial tribunal or lawsuit for defamation of character.

How to manage the risk: check and edit the content of the email before forwarding. Using 'reply all' when you only really needed to reply to the original sender.
We've probably all seen examples of this. The least damaging type is a sender telling the whole world that they can attend a meeting. The worst is when the reply contains a potentially damaging comment. The latter is very common amongst politicians (both local and national). Here, the main cost is time wasted and a perception that the sender is playing corporate politics. However, again there may be reputational and legal costs.

How to manage the risk: educate users about the email etiquette of 'reply' and 'reply all'. If you have Outlook 2010 or other email software that allows it, consider disabling the 'reply all' function. Forgetting to attach a file.
You feel such an idiot (and this can create an impression of carelessness), and then you have to play an extra, unnecessary round of email ping-pong. The main cost is time wasted and personal reputational damage as you are perceived as less than professional.

How to manage the risk: always attach files first, then write the email. If you use Google Mail, it will try to detect forgotten attachments. You can get a forgotten attachment detector for Outlook too. Using Cc rather than Bcc when emailing several people.
'Bcc' stands for blind carbon copy. When you include someone's email address in the Bcc field, they receive your email, but can't see who any of the the other recipients are.

If you don't use Bcc, you risk sharing confidential information. For example, you circulate a new price schedule to all your third party re-sellers and hence disclose to each who are the others. You may also breach the Data Protection Act. My email address is a private piece of data and you need my permission to share it with others.

Not using Bcc can cause annoyance and demonstrate a lack of professionalism, because often more space is taken up with the list of names than the content of the email. And - of course - there is always someone who hits 'reply all' and wastes everyone’s time.

How to manage the risk: educate people either always to use the Bcc address line for lists of names (e.g. more than seven), or create distribution lists which hide the email addresses from view.

For more ways to save time by using email more effectively either go to one of Dr Monica Seeley’s new ninety minute Brilliant Email Master Classes or get a copy of her latest book, ‘Brilliant Email: How to improve productivity and save time’.

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