Type “email etiquette” into the search bar of any popular search engine and you’ll get over one million hits. Because email is used so broadly, it poses certain problems for the professional who is attempting to communicate well. Any of those over one million hits will tell you the benefits of using email to conduct your business because it is a fast and efficient form of communicating. However, email is often the least preferred method of communicating by many readers.
With that in mind, I want to address one of the many options of email–the “Reply All” function. Using this function carefully will help you protect and enhance your professional credibility and prevent you from alienating your readers–especially those who don’t like email to begin with.
I’m a member of many online groups, and frequently a group’s leader will send an email to the entire group giving out information or delivering a point of instruction. Far too frequently, recipients of this group message will respond to the sender by hitting the “Reply All” function. The problem with that is all their “will do,” “got it,” and “thanks” responses end up in my Inbox becoming clutter I have to sort through and delete.
The “Reply All” function should be reserved for when all members of the recipient list need the information being sent. Let me say that again, reserve the “Reply All” for when ALL members need the responder’s answer. In how many cases do you need to know that one of the recipients said “okay”? Not often. Instead, in the interest of time, efficiency, and professionalism this type of response should be sent only to the person who generates the original email.
You’ve read in my other articles that poor communication is the Number One problem in business. Hitting “Reply All” as a matter of habit and not as a carefully chosen option is poor communication because it clutters our inboxes with information we don’t need. If we consider that every “Reply All” is a piece of paper on our desks, would we want all those responses? Absolutely not. We’d be buried in paper!
Certainly, “Reply All” has its uses. In a collaborative project where all members of the team need to be kept apprised of the goings-on of team members, using “Reply All” is the right thing to do. This is especially important if the team works remotely or when members of the team work on opposite shifts or don’t see one another frequently. Then using “Reply All” is good communication because it keeps the lines of communication open and moving. But again, I caution judicious use of the “Reply All” function.
We have another really good reason to use the “Reply All” function judiciously and that has to do with the functioning of a unit as a team. Using “Reply All” well can increase a team’s ability to function by keeping communication open, thereby helping the company reach its goals. However, using “Reply All” can also be used as a weapon and become destructive to a team relationship. Let me tell you a story to help you understand this.
I’ve been working with an organization that has had quite a bit of internal strife for various reasons. In an effort to be more supportive, the president of the organization sent a complimentary email about one staffer’s efforts to her entire staff. Nice email. Good job of communicating how staff is making the organization better. This was a responsive, proactive thing to do on the part of the president. Here’s what happened next: another of the president’s staff members hit “Reply All” and said “Don’t forget that Jane did her part, too.”
To the casual observer this exchange may not seem to be a big deal. But while that message might seem innocuous, it conveys testiness as well. The staffer’s reply was designed not only to acknowledge Jane but to “show” the rest of the staff that the president didn’t really know what was going on in the organization. The fact that the staffer sent the “Reply All” to acknowledge Jane had a subversive intent, and that was to expose the failings of the president. The president then scrambled to give Jane the proper acknowledgement and sent another message via “Reply All” acknowledging Jane’s contribution. The result: the president was put on the defensive in front of her entire staff. Not a good position for a leader to be in.
Could this situation have been handled better? Sure. The staffer should simply have replied, called, or spoken to the president directly to remind her of Jane’s efforts. Doing so would have shown respect to the president and allowed the president an opportunity to revise the original message to give Jane proper credit without being put in a defensive position.
Using the “Reply All” option may be one of those things people do to make their jobs easier, but they do it without considering the potential negative effects on the organization and workers involved. My advice: be cautious. Use “Reply All” only when all those people in the recipient list need the information you have and when they need it from you. Otherwise, respond only to the initiator of the message and let them do their jobs better.