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E-mail guidelines and etiquette

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On this page:

What's okay to send | first contact? | response? | thanks? | negotiations? | cues | written record

How to send it / e-mail business etiquette

Your e-mail alias / sender name appearing to recipient

Subject line

Dear whom? Salutations

Content

Font size/style upper/lower case

Signature block

Graphics | backgrounds

Sending and naming attachments

Final cautions and considerations

More e-mail etiquette resources


WHAT'S OKAY TO SEND TO EMPLOYERS (and others) VIA E-MAIL:

YOUR FIRST CONTACT TO AN EMPLOYER (and others)?

For a first contact, e-mail employers when an employer specifically invites or instructs you to do so — with instructions on the employer's web site, a job ad, a verbal conversation, other reliable advice, etc. Obviously if an e-mail address is provided by a person or web site, you can use it. If you can't find an e-mail contact, you might be safer sending a resume and cover letter via hard copy.

Don't ever send an e-mail without doing your research online first. If you ask a question easily answered on the organization's web site, you'll create the impression that you are lazy or unintelligent, or both. (Sorry if that seems harsh. But it's the truth and we'd rather not see you make that mistake. And it's worse if you claim on your resume that your skills include "Internet research.")

Don't send an e-mail randomly to someone saying "I'm not sure if you're the correct person, but I figured you could forward this...." Don't figure. If you write to the wrong person, s/he has no reason to respond or forward. Do your research, and say WHY you're writing to the person ("you were listed as the contact for the XYZ job fair").

RESPONDING TO EMPLOYERS (and others):

If an employer e-mails you, you can probably respond via e-mail. The key is to READ the e-mail sent by the employer and follow instructions. For example, it might instruct you to do some follow-up on-line or with another person.

Be very careful about noting TO WHOM and HOW you should respond. Morgan McKenzie of XYZ Inc., might send the e-mail, but instruct you to MAIL your resume and a cover letter to Chris Corrigan of XYZ.

E-mails that have been forwarded to you (or to many) and/or have gone through lots of forwarding may take more time for you to interpret. Read the details so you do the right thing. It won't help you to send off a response to someone who just happened to forward the e-mail but isn't the correct contact person.

When you reply to an e-mail, stick to the same subject and place your response at the top.
Don't delete the content sent to you (unless there is something inappropropriate or unnecessary for your recipient to see). If you delete it, you force the person you write to dig up his/her prior e-mail to see what you're responding to. Don't waste people's time.
Do delete unnecessary forwarding code and text that is irrelevant to the content. Again, don't waste people's time.

THANK YOU NOTES AFTER INTERVIEWS?

This question comes up a lot with students. An e-mail thank-you isn't wrong. Employers will appreciate that you did at least send thanks. If you know that the person who interviewed you is travelling a lot, s/he may see your e-mail before getting back to the office to see hard copy mail. If the hiring decision will happen very quickly following the interview, an e-mail might be seen sooner than hard copy. Hard copy is still nice, shows that you really made an effort, and can follow up an e-mail.

See After your interviews / follow up / thank-you letters

JOB NEGOTIATIONS? IMPORTANT Qs ABOUT OFFER TERMS?

Negotiations are better conducted verbally than in writing. If you don't understand the benefits package information provided with a job offer and have questions, a verbal conversation might be best. However, if speed is of the essence and you are only reaching voice mail by phone, you could alert the employer via e-mail that you have some questions and are hoping to speak directly. Suggest times when you might be available to speak.

TAKE YOUR CUES FROM EACH EMPLOYER:

If an employer has been communicating with you, take your cues from the employer. If s/he clearly prefers the phone and there's no problem reaching each other, use the phone. If s/he uses e-mail, follow suit.

CONSIDER WHEN YOU NEED A WRITTEN RECORD:

If you do something important verbally — like agree upon an interview date and time, or accept a job offer — it's important to follow up in writing, and an e-mail can serve that purpose. Usually an employer will confirm an interview time in writing, and an employer should always follow up a verbal employment offer with a written offer. But if the employer doesn't, you can. Example: "Thank you so much for the offer of an interview at your McLean, Virginia, office. I look forward to seeing you on Tuesday, March 7 at 8:00 a.m." Putting information in writing creates a record and can (if worded clearly) protect everyone from confusion and misunderstanding.

HOW TO SEND IT / E-MAIL BUSINESS ETIQUETTE:

THINK LIKE THE PERSON TO WHOM YOU'RE SENDING E-MAIL

Your e-mail alias, your subject line, and your content all have to be clear and appear appropriate to your recipient. Failure to do this can get your e-mail ignored and/or deleted as junk or spam.

YOUR E-MAIL ALIAS:

Make it your full name with "@vt.edu" as in MadisonMorgan@vt.edu. That's what the recipient will see in her/his in-box; better than stromb2467@whatever.net

Using the "edu" extension lets the recipient know you are affiliated with an educational institution — and being a student is your main job now.

Your recipient also might recognize the "vt" part. Not a bad thing.

"Hotdogdude@hotmail" or "Sillyefgrl75849" are not appropriate. True story: employer received e-mail from "sexygirl." That is an excellent way never to be taken seriously or viewed as professional — or end up in a junk/spam filter.

YOUR SUBJECT LINE:

Clear and meaningful to the recipient, as in:
"Application for graphic designer position listing 84G11"
"Follow-up to our meeting of February 21 at Virginia Tech job fair"

A blank subject line is unacceptable. You've given the recipient a good reason to ignore or delete your e-mail.

"Read this" and "information" and "for your consideration" and the like are meaningless. (Aren't all e-mails supposed to be read, and contain information, etc.?)

DEAR WHOM? SALUTATIONS: MR. MS. DR. ?
AND WHAT IF YOU DON'T HAVE A PERSON'S NAME?

Don't ever misspell a person's name if you have it. Have you received mail with your name misspelled? If so, you know the impression it makes.

If you know you're writing to Jack Caretta, use "Dear Mr. Caretta:" (Not "Dear Mr. Jack Caretta:" Use only last name after Mr./Ms./Dr.)

If you know you're writing to Allyson Abernathy, you'll use "Dear Ms. Abernathy:"

It is never appropriate to assume a woman's marital status, and her marital status is irrelevant to business communication. Therefore, don't use "Mrs." or "Miss" in business communication. Use "Ms." for women; it's the feminine equivalent to the masculine "Mr." Only exception to this is is when a person uses those salutations for herself. (However, note that it is not protocol to use Mr., Mrs., or Miss to refer to oneself in business!! Obviously salutations are used in some settings, like school settings in which students are expected to address adults as Mr., Ms., Miss, Mrs., or Dr.)

For individuals with Ph.D.s, other doctoral degrees, and medical degrees that confer the use of "Dr." then use "Dear Dr. [lastname]:" regardless of gender. There is nothing about the salutation "Dr." that implies anything about gender.

What if the person does not use "Dr." and the person's name leaves you uncertain about gender? Your best bet is to do some research. Get on the organization's web site and see if you can learn anything. If not, call the organization and be honest: Say, "I'm writing a letter to Pat Watford. I apologize, but I have not met Pat Watford and I want to properly address Pat Watford as 'Ms.' or 'Mr.' Can you advise me?"

What if there is no name supplied? Good question. "Dear Sir or Madam:" is always appropriate. If you don't know who will see and read your letter, using just "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam" is inappropriate and suggests gender bias on your part. (An exception might be if you're writing to a single-gender institution, and you are absolutely without question certain that every possible person who might receive your letter is of one gender.)

Another approach when you have no name, but you do know the department to which you must send your letter is to do something like, "Dear Human Resources Department staff:" or "Dear Hiring Manager at XYZ Inc.:" Be very careful if you do this. You don't want your letter to look like a form letter you sent to 30 employers (unless you want it ignored).

YOUR CONTENT:

Business-like writing style.

Attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation (same rules as for hard copy correspondence)

Clear, concise, to the point. Respect the employer's time. Don't expect him/her to work to figure out why you're writing. Unclear e-mails risk being ignored.

Start by saying why you're writing. "I'm applying for the accounting internship position your firm advertised through the Virginia Tech Accounting Department." If you're applying for a job, employers like to know how/where you learned about the job.

Brief information about yourself. "This May I will graduate from Virginia Tech with a bachelor's degree in human services. My experience includes two internships in community mental health agencies."

DON'T write like the script of a phone call as in "Hi, I'm such-and-such. How are you today?...."

The same rules of hard copy correspondence apply to business e-mail.
For more info on content, see
Guidelines for correspondence in your job search
Cover letter types and samples

FONT STYLE AND SIZE / UPPER AND LOWER CASE:

Avoid fonts that are so stylized that they are difficult to read.

Don't use all capitals. It's the e-mail equivalent of SHOUTING and people don't like it.

Very large fonts can also seem like shouting.

By the same token, don't use all lower case letters. (Your purpose in business correspondence is not to attempt to pass for the poet e.e.cummings.)

Be judicious about color and bolding. For job search correspondence, don't use it. For correspondence letting people know about an event, it can be used very judiciously.

YOUR SIGNATURE BLOCK:

The terminology "signature block" evolved from hard copy correspondence on which a handwritten signature is a must, followed by your typed name. Of course, in e-mail, there is no handwritten signature; the term just refers to the block of information that closes your e-mail.

Include one in business correspondence outside your own office or department. It should give your full name and full contact information, including mailing address, e-mail address and phone number(s). After your name, you can include something that identifies you (as a job title would), like "Junior Biology major at Virginia Tech."

You might think you don't need to include your e-mail address because your recipient can hit "reply" to e-mail you. However, if your recipient forwards your e-mail to someone else who might like to reply to you, that person might not be able to see or access your e-mail address. By including your e-mail address in your signature block, you make life easier for others (this will contribute to your success in the job search and on the job), and help people reach you.

Attaching a signature file is not a substitute for having a signature block. DON'T assume that your reader will open attachments to get basic information that should appear in the content of your e-mail, like your name and how to reach you.

Be careful about including quotations and sayings in your signature block. Obviously don't include anything that has potential to be offensive or misunderstood. Think about the impression your message sends to someone who doesn't know you, and be judicious.

GRAPHICS / BACKGROUNDS:

Generally avoid graphics and backgrounds in business e-mail. They are unnecessary, make your e-mail file larger and clog up memory in people's in-boxes. Don't do it. Better safe than sorry. Moving graphics are annoying and are disability-unfriendly.

SENDING & NAMING ATTACHMENTS:

If you're e-mailing an employer because the employer instructed applicants to do so, again check any instructions the employer has given. If the employer said to attach a resume, do it. If an employer said to attach a cover letter, do it (and in your e-mail give a short explanation of what's attached, why, and who it's from). Use the format the employer requests.

See above: If I'm e-mailing my resume, should my cover letter be attached OR be the content of the e-mail?

Name your attachment(s) logically — for the recipient, not yourself, that is. "EmilyAlderResume.doc" works fine. "Myresume4jf206" might work for you, but won't mean anything or be helpful to the employer.

When attaching an MS Word document (or any type of e-file), include the appropriate extension ".doc" or "docx" (or other extension) so the employer's computer can open it with the appropriate computer application.

Don't send a pdf file to an employer unless you are instructed to do so by the employer, or unless that's the absolute stated standard in your industry and field. (Ask 10 people if they like receiving pdf files; most groan, they create barriers to getting the information, and even now, some people's computers can't/won't open them.)

Don't send a content-empty e-mail that forces the recipient to open an attachment to know why you're writing. Include a brief, clear summary in your e-mail telling why you're writing and what the attachments are.

See more on e-mailing resumes.

FINAL CAUTIONS & CONSIDERATIONS:

Be aware that e-mail is a form of written communication and it creates a written record.

Retain copies of the e-mail you send and receive.

Don't let the speed and ease of sending e-mail blind you to the fact that you will be judged on what you say and how you say it. 

E-mail, like other written correspondence, doesn't reveal your tone of voice. Choose your words carefully.

A well-written e-mail can quickly impress an employer (and the reverse is true).

When people take time to respond to you and give you information, respond with thanks. That person has given you time, and time is precious. Don't treat people like servants. If you treat people poorly because they are lower on the organizational chart than others, be assured those up the chart will be informed. Failing to say thanks makes you look lazy, unintelligent, self-centered, or immature (or some combination). Again, sorry if that sounds harsh, but we want to help you avoid mistakes!

Additional E-mail business etiquette resources

Netiquette by Virginia Shea, "Miss Manners of the Internet."

NetManners.com: Business E-mail Basics (and other good stuff)

EmailReplies.com: e-mail rules

Writing Effective E-Mail: Top 10 Tips

An e-mail vacation... (NPR.org)
...with stories of e-mail goofs on the job: the embarrassing e-mail page of shame (good warnings, good laugh).

Email Etiquette 101
18 suggestions, including "don't discuss multiple subjects in a single message."

Want more?!
Google "effective e-mail" or "e-mail etiquette."
You'll get a wealth of advice and you'll see patterns.

P.S. Some old advice says to put your reply below the original message. That never really took hold. Current advice and usual business practice is to put your response above the previous e-mail when you reply. And don't delete the original message to which you're responding. The person to whom you're replying has lots of other e-mail besides yours (imagine that!).

 

Related topics:

  1. Guidelines for correspondence in your job search
    Includes...
    Do I have to send a cover letter with my resume?
    Dear Whom? (What if I can't find a name?)
    Hard copy or e-mail? When to use which.
  2. Researching employers — why and how
  3. Cover letter types and samples
  4. After your interviews / follow up / thank-you letters
  5. Acknowledging a job offer
  6. Declining a job offer
  7. Requesting extension of deadline to accept/decline offer
  8. Accepting an offer and withdrawing from the job search

 

FAQ:

Q: If I'm sending a resume and cover letter by e-mail, SHOULD MY COVER LETTER be THE E-MAIL CONTENT, OR an ATTACHMENT?

A: Common question! Either are possible. Consider this approach:

If the employer's website or a person doesn't instruct on this (you could ask!), and you just have an e-mail address, make your e-mail a brief version of your cover letter — boil it to the essense — and indicate that your resume and cover letter are attached. The attached cover letter can be a bit more detailed.

This way, you've essentially given the employer the option to look at just one or both, and you have included the more formal document as an attachment.

Be sure the e-mail has at least enough info so the employer knows why you're writing: the job of interest, your basic qualifications and your complete contact info.

And of course we're happy to review your documents before you send them via advising.