Copying multiple people on emails—informative or just annoying? Elaine Varelas reviews email best practices

Deciding who and when to copy others on an email chain can be a challenge—will they be happy to be kept informed? Or annoyed at yet another email in their inbox? Different companies and projects have different norms, and copying people can be done with various intents. Elaine Varelas explores the ins and outs of workplace email.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: What’s the etiquette on copying multiple people on emails at work? I can see that it keeps everyone in the loop on an issue; on the other hand, everyone’s inboxes are out of control and it doesn’t always seem necessary. Plus, it sometimes feels like a passive aggressive power play, especially when copying someone’s boss. I feel like I always make the wrong choice. What are some basic rules to follow?

A: Emails have many uses in the workplace: to ask somebody to acknowledge something or take an action; to keep several people informed of a project’s progress; to give someone information they need; or to put the pressure on someone who hasn’t taken action on a previous request (which is when you might visibly copy that person’s boss). When facing the multiple uses—and intents—of the copy function, you will have to decide how you want to communicate given the specific situation. Some approaches are very transparent with positive intent, while others can come across as conniving, passive aggressive, or just plain aggressive. The nature of the project in question, your company’s general email culture, and your own personal intent are all factors that come into play with email etiquette.

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Talk to your boss about how and what they like to be kept informed on in general. Do they want little nuggets of information on everything that you’re doing via email? Or do they find that overwhelming and tedious and would rather you put together a single report to review separately? Most managers don’t want to see lots of little emails, but if there’s something significant you need to close the loop on or inform them of, use your judgment and acknowledge the reason for putting them on copy.

Different projects will also have different email etiquette, and this is something that you might decide early on with the involved parties. Maybe one person on the project team is responsible for emailing meeting minutes or summaries of individual updates from other team members. A key agreement is for everyone involved to acknowledge how these communications will be handled to avoid any misinterpretation of who is copied on emails.

Another crucial practice when copying multiple people is to ensure clarity on who has the action. If you copy people with no direction, it will likely result in confusion: “Am I following up? Are you following up? Do I need to prepare something?” If you need something, be very clear about who you are asking to do those things. It can be a huge annoyance and waste of time for three people to assume they’re supposed to take action, only to find out that someone else has already handled it. And it can be even worse if no one takes the action because they assume someone else is responsible. When sending emails with a lot of information for multiple people, it’s also helpful to put their names in their section to gain their attention. Clear communication will avoid duplicated efforts or missed deadlines.

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If you aren’t getting the response or action from a colleague that you need, a more senior person might offer for you to copy them on your next email. It’s best not to passive aggressively copy senior people, though—make sure they have given you permission to do so and your colleague hasn’t given you any other choice. This approach can be effective in getting others to act, but it can backfire if not handled appropriately. If you’re throwing somebody under the bus in front of their boss and you haven’t communicated with them that you were going to do so, that person will be upset and the manager may feel that you need to develop better communication skills. If you can discuss the issue directly with the offender first before bringing in a senior figure, it will go over better.

Trying to balance open communication and not wanting to annoy people by clogging their inbox can be a challenge. Typically, the sender just wants to be sure that the ball has been caught and that you recognize any potential action required. No acknowledgement causes concern, so even a quick “Noted!” or “Thanks for the update” from the recipient can be helpful. People who no longer need to be included on a communication—if they made an introduction or their role in the project is complete—can politely be removed: “I’ll drop you off following this” or “The two of you can take it from here” will keep everyone in the loop.

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So much of this is about intent. When copying people, are you trying to make them look bad? Or do you just genuinely want to make sure everyone is informed and up to date on the latest developments of a deliverable? Check your intentions, ask colleagues about their preferences, and always be clear about next steps when emailing multiple people.