Business Email Etiquette: Are You Being Too Formal?

business email etiquette


It started with a conversation about the pros and cons of using emojis in email or Slack conversations at work. Curious what the current research (and editorialized thinkpieces) had to say on the subject, I took to the internet.

I learned a few noteworthy things:

First, this single research study from Ben Gurion University is cited dozens of times as the authoritative word on using emojis in the workplace, and it seems to have spread wildly across the internet (seriously—Google “emojis in the workplace” and you’ll find dozens of articles referencing this one particular study).

They found a correlation between using emojis and assumed incompetence. So, right off the bat, not a great case for using emojis at work.

I also learned that people feel really, really strongly about emojis—surprisingly so. Moreover, there seems to be some pretty aggressively anti-emoji rhetoric out there.

Maybe my millennial is showing here, but I didn’t quite understand the fervor. At the end of the day, it’s a small yellow smiley face—not exactly the paramount evidence I would use to assess someone’s friendliness or competence, or as a primary indicator of whether a colleague seems respectable, friendly, or professional.

However, the more I discussed it with coworkers, friends, and pretty much anyone who would listen, I started to think less about emojis, and more about the implication behind them.

In essence, it’s a question about how formal or informal you should be when you’re communicating online with your work team (and I’m talking about internal communication within your company here. Communicating with your customers, vendors, and other businesses via email is an entirely different conversation!).

After all, emojis are the ultimate form of casual electronic communication. You can’t get more casual than a symbolic shortcut to represent an emotion.

But that brings up a more important, nuanced question: How casual is too casual for the workplace—even when you’re just messaging your coworkers? What is the appropriate business email etiquette here?


Does interoffice electronic communication need to be formal?

Our chief operations officer, Noah Parsons, thinks that for internal email communication, sign-offs and other formalities (even capitalization) are potentially unnecessary.

Via Noah on Twitter.

“Electronic communication should be helpful, so it should be efficient,” says Noah. “If it’s getting in the way or slowing things down, then it’s a problem.”

He says he believes email, when used for internal purposes, should be allowed to be brief. “You should have the right to reply to an internal email in the way you would a Slack message: with just an answer,” says Noah.

If you are communicating with your team via email, do you need to follow the standard rules for opening and closing written communication? Is it necessary to start with “Dear Mr. Smith” when addressing your colleague down the hall, and do the normal rules of capitalization and standard written communication expectations still apply?

To answer this question, I also think it’s necessary to ask a follow-up question: What is the “point” of internal electronic communication—and in particular, what is the point of it within your business?

Prioritizing efficiency

Ultimately, communicating on a platform like Slack or via email serves a few important functions: to easily and efficiently disseminate, organize, and keep a record of information.

Efficiency is a big one. Sending a Slack message or a quick email is generally faster and easier than walking over to someone’s desk (and interrupting both your workflow as well as theirs), or scheduling a formal meeting for something small.

So, if the goal is to help keep things efficient, you could argue that formalities like sign-offs and even capitalization are simply slowing you down.

“It’s all about finding the balance between efficiency, and the need to communicate tone and get your message across,” says Noah. Even though it might seem slight (how long does it really take to say “Thank you very much! – Briana” at the end of an email), “if you deal with a ton of mail on a daily basis, it just takes longer.”

The potential downsides of being brief

Of course, the obvious downside of to the point, brief language? It can come off as rude, or as though you didn’t give the message much thought. Plus, you run the risk that your message will be misunderstood (with potential for small and large consequences) if you completely eschew grammar rules like proper punctuation—which I’m certainly not advocating for.

Leaders need to be especially careful that brevity doesn’t work against them. While responding with a simple “sounds good” might indicate assent and agreement, it leaves a lot unsaid, especially if you’re working with a relatively new team that doesn’t yet fully know how to interpret (and act on) a two-word response.

Noah notes that people may interpret short, clipped responses as gruff or uncaring, and because of this we sometimes feel inclined to add a smiley face, or somehow soften our messaging, so as not to put anyone off.

What culture are you creating?

The reality is that whether or not using emojis or casual language within your business is “okay” depends a lot on the specific business in question.

It’s a question of culture; does your company culture support more casual communication, or are you all buttoned up? Why or why not—and have you clarified your thought process and expectations to your team?

At Palo Alto Software, for example, we’re always looking for ways to leverage efficiencies in our workflows. We’re generally open to testing new approaches, and even throwing out the playbook if we have the data to prove that something isn’t working.

We also hire for these qualities—curiosity, understanding how to test and make data-driven decisions, communication skills, and so on—when we add people to our team.

So, if doing away with formality means a more efficient workflow, we’re willing to give it a try and look at the results. Plus, our culture isn’t overly formal, so a more casual communication style works for us. But this doesn’t mean that our external communication is free of pleasantries—we’ve just acknowledged that internally, we’re okay with being a little more casual.

However, that might not be you; maybe you prefer to keep things more by the book. Or, maybe you’ve found that communicating exclusively in GIFs saves your team time and money.

The point is: there isn’t a universal right way, as much as there is a right way for your organization and the culture you are trying to create. So, the correct business email etiquette will depend on your business.

Building workplace communication that reflects your culture

You probably have a clear sense of the culture you’ve developed (or that you’d like to further create) within your business.

However, knowing what you’d like to see and implementing it are two different things. Here are three ways to create patterns of communication within your workplace that work for your organization, and not against it.

1. Consider user manuals

I’ve mentioned the idea of user manuals on the Outpost blog before.

The idea behind creating a user manual is that each employee writes up a description of how they “work”—what settings help them be the most productive, what rubs them the wrong way, how they prefer to be communicated with (is it the spontaneous drop by? A Slack message? A scheduled meeting?).

Having each employee write a user manual (and making sure your entire team has read all the completed manuals) will teach you a lot about your coworkers, and help you to put systems in place to get the most out of each other and keep everything running smoothly.

On the subject of communication styles, consider asking your teammates what they prefer. Do they appreciate brevity? Would they rather a longer, more thoughtful response? What works for them, and what doesn’t?

2. Clarify how you (and your business) communicate internally

If you prefer a short, succinct response, let your team know that you’re not being rude, but trying to save time and keep things to the point.

By clearing the air and working your preferred communication style into your own user manual (or hey, even your culture deck, depending on how far up the chain you’d like to send the information), your team will understand your intent, and you can avoid misunderstandings.

Finally, make sure you clarify idiosyncrasies. After all, what do you mean when you use a certain emoji? Do you use slang or acronyms that might be confusing or alienating to someone who just joined your company? Clarify all of this in the same breathe.

3. Define your business’s standards for communicating with customers and external audiences

While you’re defining how you’d like to communicate internally, spend some time articulating the differences between what’s appropriate internally versus externally, and how external communication should read.

Remember, language should be used as a tool. If you need to send a very clear, concise email to a vendor, you’ll probably want to use commas, proper capitalization, complete sentences—essentially, you’ll want to make it precise.

Or, maybe you want to communicate a fun tone in a certain type of email message—so clarify that, make sure your team is on the same page, and maybe create a template that everyone can work from.

Do you feel that formality is still necessary for interoffice emails, or have you embraced a more casual approach? What works within your workplace, and what doesn’t? Let me know on Twitter @BrianaMorgaine—I’d love to hear your input.

Posted in: Company Culture Email

Briana Morgaine

Briana Morgaine

Briana is a content and digital marketing specialist, editor, and writer. She enjoys discussing business, marketing, and social media, and is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Bri is a resident of Portland, Oregon, and she can be found, infrequently, on Twitter.

Further Reading

You Had Me at Hello: The Best Email Greetings for Customers

A great email has a lot of moving parts. The first one you’ll encounter? How to begin your email. What email greeting is most…

How to Answer Emails Professionally in 6 Easy Steps

Email is one of the best ways to communicate with customers—it's important to get it right. Here's how to send a professional email…

Your Business Email Signature: What to Include (and What to Leave Out)

Your business email signature is the last thing someone sees when they read your email. By the time you’ve put to work these simple…