Digital Etiquette

Digital Etiquette

Email has taken over our workplace life. Here’s how to keep it from overwhelming your personal brand.

Minnesotans boast plenty of positive characteristics. There is, however, one trait for which Minnesotans have a reputation that reaches beyond our borders. We are the land of indirectness, which can come off as passive-aggressive. My mini-mission is to turn the tide. The first place to start is with a daily staple: email, which overwhelms many of our days and can be a source of great professional frustration.

PadillaCRT’s CEO Lynn Casey is a woman I’ve long admired. When she was named to TCB’s Minnesota Business Hall of Fame, I sent her a note and a copy of my book as a small gesture of congratulations. On what seemed like the very day she received the book, Casey sent me a thank-you by email. I was impressed this busy CEO took time to send a personal message. Her calendar is packed, much like those of many decision-makers you want to reach.

I wondered how other busy professionals who use email effectively manage to pull it off. At Thrivent Financial, senior vice president for shared services and administration Terry Timm says the company configured Outlook to help everyone stay on top of things. “Internal email gets routed to a separate inbox from external ones. Any email for which I am not the primary recipient is routed into a third box. A fourth box is where unwanted marketing material goes. This process allows ‘FYI’ traffic to be separated from traffic that requires my personal attention.” Timm’s system also flags emails from “critical authors,” such as the CEO, to whom he reports.

Email etiquette

An organizing system is only half the battle with email. “People get hundreds of them a day,” says Jennifer Hellman, COO of St. Paul-based Goff Public, a media relations and reputation management firm. “Be clear in your initial email about when you need a reply.” If you don’t hear back, follow up. She advises that “a professional and unemotional tone moves things along.” Hellman says it’s OK to include your original email so recipients can be reminded about the initial content rather than search their inbox.

One challenge is knowing when to give up on the unresponsive and not offend people with excessive persistence. Rose McKinney, CEO of Edina-based Pineapple Reputation Management, advises a “polite persistence mindset.” If you’ve followed up politely to no avail, start an entirely new email, which she calls “closing the loop.” She suggests you write those exact words in the subject line: You are giving someone permission to say no.

I’ve tried her tip and it works. Try language such as “Because I haven’t heard from you, I’ll assume you’ve made a different decision. I’ll remove you from my follow-up list.” She says more often than not, people reply and say, “Wait a minute, this fell off my radar. Thanks for reconnecting.” McKinney’s process is also a good way to help those whom you want to respond prioritize response time.

Unresponsive correspondents are a reminder that it’s important to build email response into your calendar, lest your reputation cross into the impolite zone. Many of my C-suite executive clients tell me they use the early-morning hours before the typical workday starts to respond to emails.


You’ve likely received an auto-reply message. McKinney says it’s important to give people a sense of timing when you are out of the office, but it’s not always necessary to use the auto-reply function. “If you’re out just a day or two, it’s not needed. You have the ability to check those emails or leave for someone else to flag.”

McKinney lets clients with deadlines know when she’s gone for extended periods and also tells them who at her firm can handle anything that arises. McKinney encourages an auto-reply if your absence is due to something that would make an impression on your correspondent, such as presenting at a prestigious conference. In those cases, she will provide a description of where she was and what she was doing—“This allows for clients to be impressed with the speaking invitation.” That gets a thumbs-up from me because doing this also enhances her personal brand.

Dawn Levy, digital marketing manager at DexMedia, supports clients, management and hundreds of salespeople every day. She can’t ignore any of them—no matter where she is. “Your out-of-office reply is the best way to set a clear expectation when you are temporarily unavailable,” Levy says. “This is especially critical in a customer-based sales organization or service-related business.” Her recommendation is to share specific details in an auto-reply: time frame of departure and a date of your return, a solution for a backup contact, an urgent contact number. Levy says it’s optional for you to add that you’re on vacation, in training or off-site. This is where audience analysis is important. If you believe your readers need that additional detail to help them be more comfortable or to show them respect, include it.


When you email a group, think twice before you make everyone’s address visible. If you send or receive an email with many recipients, don’t jump to hit reply-all. If it’s a business email, however, McKinney says a reply-all may be necessary so it doesn’t seem like anyone’s having a side conversation or being passive-aggressive by blind-copying a boss. When the email is about social plans or logistics, just email the original sender; you don’t want to needlessly fill the inboxes of others. Remember everything has a subtextual message—when someone receives a bunch of redundant reply-all messages, it usually attaches groans to your brand.

The smartphone twist

Many of us have strong feelings about how to use this device of convenience properly when communicating. “It gives you some license to be brief,” says Hellman. If you do have a template signature on your smartphone, Hellman suggests using “Please excuse my brevity.” You’ve often seen sign-offs in which people apologize for typos. I think that subtextual message reads as careless, lazy and disrespectful to the recipient.

If there’s one takeaway I got from my email research, it’s that we all should get our own email triage system in order. You’ll avoid passive-aggressive tendencies and land in a much better space—that of good communicator who respects others’ time while teaching them how to communicate with you.

Roshini Rajkumar is a communication coach, host of News & Views on WCCO Radio, and author of Communicate That! For additional communication tips, visit

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