Barry Associates' Recommended Email and Internet Etiquette (Netiquette) Guide
by Rick Barry, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated, 22 April, 1999.
Email policy has to do with what organizations require by way of email usage by its employees. But many organizations and employees see the need for something beyond those kind of rules having to do with what is good email practice. Thus, some voluntary guidelines have been developed by various people, some that have been codified and some that have not, that very properly can become an effective annex to email policies but are not the same thing. Below is a compilation of such guidelines.
I have drawn from a RAND report, client consulting studies I have done on the subject and other varied and sundry sources, including suggestions I have seen on various lists, early-days training on Action Technologies Incs Coordinator System that included training in good office communication practices, not limited to email. The result: my own home-grown recommended guide that I owe to everyone and use with clients and am happy to share here. You will observe that I have covered some personal recordkeeping practices in my list. It is simply my own way of slipping in good recordkeeping while promoting good Netiquette. I would, of course, welcome any ideas on improving the guide.
Never use someone else's email address to send communications without their permission and without identifying the fact that you are communicating from their email address at the beginning of the message.
Inform people in advance with whom you plan or commonly have confidential conversations when you are planning to auto-forward your email temporarily to someone else in your absence
Similarly, if you routinely allow a third party to review your incoming email, you should make that known to people with whom you have confidential conversations. Senders of confidential email are entitled to know when there is a virtual BCC on whatever they send you.
Keep good records of email communications just as you would (or should) of any other kind of substantive work-related communications. [Email communications are in many cases records, most cases in public/private sector business communication settings or when using business sponsored email systems, often constituting the only records for particular business discussions or decisions. See HOT TOPICS/ Email. Being records does not necessarily mean that they are worthy of being preserved for long periods. But the latter is a question of appraisal and disposition management policy and procedures, separate from the question of whether certain email communications are records or not.]
Learn effective ways in which to maintain personal electronic files and stimulate the implementation of standard unit or institutional electronic file schemes which you can use to easily copy appropriate email messages.
Before commencing an electronic conversation on a complicated or protracted subject, it is good practice to begin with a face-to-face or telephone conversation where practical to do so; where not practical, recognize the likelihood for misunderstanding up front and take extra steps to avoid it.
Check your email daily.
Make messages clear and concise.
Avoid multi-subject messages that are difficult for the recipient to file or pass on to others for action or that could include different access levels for future recipients.
Make it clear whether you are speaking for yourself or your organization. If you do not, you should assume that the reader will interpret your comments as speaking in your official capacity.
Make it clear when constructing a message what you are trying to do. Are you simply passing on information? Requesting someone to comment on your idea? To act on it? Say so.
In multiple addressee communications, use TO addressees to indicate people for whom there is some expectation of action or who have a central interest in the subject, and CC addressees for people who have a peripheral interest and who can reasonably expect that no action or reply is required of them as a consequence of the message unless they have feedback they wish to contribute.
When responding to a message sent to a group, consider whether it is more appropriate to include all original CCs on your reply or only the sender -- in many cases, e.g., where the sender is coordinating a meeting, it is not important for you to inform others that you will/wont be able to make a meeting at the proposed time. [Similarly, consider what is the minimum amount of the incoming message to which you are replying that is essential to attach to your reply to ensure that the recipient(s) have the necessary context of your reply. Do not routinely attach to your reply the entire incoming message or the whole thread to which you are replying. Do this only when it is essential because new addresses have been added or for other good business reasons only.]
Do not send attachments to large distribution lists (never to Lists) unless you know that everyone is on the same wordprocessing (WP) standard. If the recipient is unknown, ascertain WP version in advance or send in ASCII. If an attachment is text and relatively small, and you are uncertain, also include an ASCII version in the body of the email message (em).
Choose appropriate media for a message depending on its content and urgency. Dont send email to someone that must be acted upon that day; or [if that is unavoidable] inform the person by telephone or voice mail that a message of that nature has been sent to them.
Concern yourself with the manner in which a message is constructed. It is entirely appropriate to use "emoticons" or expressive symbols to express humor or other feelings in order to avoid misinterpretation or subsequent "flaming" responses. These can be formed using standard keyboard symbols (that typically must be read sideways in email). For example you may indicate that you are meaning to be facetious in a particular statement by using the familiar "smiley face"
For a large compilation of emoticons see the Unofficial Smiley Dictionary at http://www.eff.org/papers/eegtti/eeg_286.html. But don't get too elaborate or most readers won't get your nuances. Simple, obvious emoticons are best.
Avoid causing or otherwise contributing to "flaming" conversations, most often created by unpleasant personal comments made over email that the author would not likely make to a persons face or due to hastily or ill-considered phrasing of a message that is taken as offensive.
Deal with flames directly, first. The best way to bring someone into line who is way out of line in his/her flames is to write to the offending person directly, rather than to a distribution list. This is especially effective if several people who experienced the flame do so at the same time. If that doesn't work – and for those other than the most thick skinned it usually will – then it is a matter that can be taken up using the broader distribution list. If that doesn't work, depending on the ground rules for the group in question, the flamer can either be asked to leave, in the case of Lists can be denied entry to the list by the List Adminstrator, or the person can simply be ignored. Most people who flame as a matter of habit cannot stand being ignored and they will normally either leave the group on their own accord or clean up their act.
Email should never be used to send harassing, obscene or pornographic information. This should be a matter of netiquette if not email policy and, in the U.S., is also a matter of law (1).
Don't say anything in email that you would be embarrassed to see broadcast to the world at large or, as it is sometimes put, that you wouldn't want to read on the front page of the morning paper. Most people have had the experience of accidentally attaching the wrong file to an email message and sending it to a large circulation list. Or doing a "REPLY" to an incoming message to capture its text with the intent of sending it to someone else with your comments, but you forget to change the address and it goes to the sender of the incoming em, which could be the author or even a list. Assume that anything you might write might get so attached by someone else. Do not write something that you would be offended to have your intended recipients pass on to others whom you would prefer not to have see it.
If you receive mail or attachments wrongly sent, inform the sender promptly.
Do not forward someone else's email to others without prior permission. Common sense must prevail here as in other guiding principles. An obvious exception here is when it is patently the kind of business communication that anyone would reasonably expect you to treat as such in the normal course of business, e.g., for passing a request on to someone else for their action.
Think twice before you use the blind-copy (BCC) feature of some email systems. Ask yourself: is this being done as a common business practice to include key subordinates or managers and an action officer on an outgoing em that, as in the above example? Or is it something that might be taken as offensive by the recipient were s/he to learn about it later on, especially if your em should quote his/her incoming em to you.
Other examples of ethics and etiquette for electronic mail may be found in a somewhat outdated but still good RAND study (2):
Create single-subject messages whenever possible.
1: HIGH COURT UPHOLDS LAW BANNING 'OBSCENE' E-MAIL: The [U.S.] Supreme Court ruled yesterday [20 April 1999] that a provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 outlawing the distribution of indecent e-mail for the purpose of harassing other people does not violate free-speech rights. The law applies to e-mail that is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person." ApolloMedia, developer of the annoy.com Web site, had challenged the law as an infringement of free speech. Annoy.com allows users to send anonymous communications to public officials. The Supreme Court justices backed a lower court's ruling that the provision applies only to "obscenity." ApolloMedia had argued that terms of the provision extend beyond obscenity and leave the company open to being criminally prosecuted because its communications could be judged indecent by some. (Washington Post 04/20/99). Source EDUPAGE (21 April 1999). Back to text
2: This refers to an old RAND report that is out of date but still good in this area: "Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail" by Norma Z. Shapiro and Robert H. Anderson, July 1985, Prepared for the National Science Foundation, RAND Report R-3283-NSF/RC. See also "Netiquette - Copy of The Net User Guidelines and Netiquette", http://www.fau.edu/rinaldi/net/elec.html, by Arlene Rinaldi. Back to text
Rick Barry is a consultant in the field of information management and records management whose clients include several national archivists and national archives, international organizations and private sector organizations. He has carried out consulting engagements, presented conference papers and conducted workshops on electronic records management in the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe and Latin America, and is widely published internationally. Several of his papers and engagements, as well as other resources are available electronically on the World Wide Web at URL: http://www.rbarry.com. The author invites visitors to his WWW page and guest log.