To CC or not to CC, that is the question
January 28, 2020
We thought we’d offer up something a little different on our blog this week. It’s a subject matter that everyone has had a challenge with now and then. Email communication! We all send and receive emails, and yet how often do we stop and think about best practice? This, especially in a social service setting that demands confidentiality.
Have you ever fired off an email only to have the recipient respond in a manner that you were not expecting?
Email communication is essential to the functioning of any company or organization, not just a Children’s Mental Health agency like Wood’s Homes. It is so unavoidable that we rarely stop to think about not only what we communicate via email, but also how, when and why we communicate. At Wood’s Homes, email communication is a constant stream of traffic involving networks of frontline staff, clinicians, HR and Communications personnel, and multiple levels of management. In any social service organization, emails often concern confidential client data and/or time-sensitive matters.
In the Research Department, where I work as a Research Assistant, we interact with all levels and program areas of the agency daily in order to fulfill our mandate. Through trial and error, I have personally learned the value of effective email communication – sometimes, taking the time to reconsider your audience and to reword an email can make the difference between having your questions and concerns addressed or getting a completely different response than you expected! This blog will highlight my reflections on the lessons about effective email communication that I have learned from my experiences below.
Fortunately for staff at Wood’s Homes, we have policies and recommendations around email etiquette and client confidentiality and consent. A few points from these documents are worthy of attention for anyone. The first point, however, is particular to Wood’s Homes and any agency that works with vulnerable populations.
- Remember that email is not a secure form of communication: As Wood’s Homes works with vulnerable youth, staff must take extra care not to include client names or personal information in emails, as this information can be forwarded intentionally or sent accidentally to the wrong party. Clients and caregivers provide informed and voluntary consent to treatment with the understanding that their confidentiality and privacy will be respected. Additionally, spammers may try to infiltrate the system in attempts to appropriate a client identity. Finally, emails and other client documents may be subpoenaed by courts, so an employee should consider carefully what confidential information they could inadvertently send out when they click ‘send’. Breaches of confidentiality must be reported, and offending staff may be subject to disciplinary action.
- One should never use email to avoid personal contact: This is particularly in a situation that is uncomfortable, contentious, or emotional; in other words, sometimes it is more appropriate to talk in person with a leader or colleague(s).
- One should only use “CC” and “Reply All” when the information is useful to every recipient and/or when you require collective input. Be mindful of people’s time; recipients are unlikely to pay attention to every message if their inbox becomes clogged with low priority group emails.
- BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) should be avoided in the workplace: This does not show confidence or professionalism when you keep others from seeing who you copied or leave other recipients with the false impression that their correspondence with you is confidential. However, BCC is acceptable when looking to protect the privacy of recipients of mass emails.
Research suggests that workplace culture is an important factor in both the frequency and form of email greetings and closings: in organizations that have open and positive relationships between staff and management, email communication tends to be more relaxed and friendly than in organizations with low morale and mistrust of management.
If you find that you send and receive workplace emails with familiar greetings or even emoticons, this might be a sign of a healthy work environment. That being said, you might want to be sparse in your use of emoticons if you want to be taken seriously, as you may end up giving the impression that you do not take professional matters seriously.
Research suggests the following general principles for email communication in order to leave an impression of professionalism:
- Standardize your response times, and try to respond within 24 hours of receiving an email.
- Write short, clear paragraphs and get to the point to avoid wasting the recipient’s time.
- Always stop to proofread and think over your email before you hit send.
- Be sensitive to cultural differences and be aware that tone can be difficult to convey in written form.
- Incorporate greetings and closings to convey tone and professionalism.
- Turn on your auto-reply as this shows you take ownership of your work. If you forget to do so during holidays, you may come back to your office to dozens of voice messages from confused callers and/or emails about ignored requests and questions.
The hardest lesson for me to learn has been how to be brief and to the point within an email. Sometimes I look back at old emails and I realize how needlessly verbose they were, and oftentimes these emails would go unanswered or misinterpreted. Senior leaders in particular juggle dozens or even hundreds of emails, text messages and phone calls every day while co-ordinating staff and the care of vulnerable clients.
Here are some ideas that I have learned to email more clearly: use bullet points for individual ideas, instructions, or points of interest; bold font for specific actions required or suggested; and use italics for examples of items that are relevant to this action. I tinker with this format depending on the situation, but the intent is to provide visual cues to help my reader gleam the important points from the mass of text.
Everyone has their own style, but the essential point to remember for anyone who is employed in a support role in any large agency is that communication is a conduit, and the more efficient that conduit, the more efficient the entire operation. At Wood’s Homes, effective email communication and protection of client confidentiality remain a key focus in our work with vulnerable children, youth and families.
Agnew, D.S., & Hill, K. 2009. Email Etiquette Recommendation for Today’s Business Student. Proceedings of the Academy of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict 14(2).
Skovholt, K., Gronning, A., & Kankaanranta, A. 2014. The Communication Functions of Emoticons in Workplace E-Mails:)*. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19: 780-797.
Waldvogel, J. 2007. Greetings and Closings in Workplace Email. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12: 456-477.
Fuld, H. (2018, June 4). Here’s When BCC is Acceptable and When it Must Be Avoided at All Costs. Retrieved from: https://www.inc.com/hillel-fuld/heres-when-bcc-is-acceptable-when-it-must-be-avoided-al-all-costs.html