I receive about 10k emails per year and send about 2-3k. In my department (the sphere I can influence) there are those who almost never respond and those who respond as soon as I have hit the send button. There are also those who send mails on weekends, in the middle of the night, seemingly expecting answers fairly immediately. The record was probably the mail that was send shortly after midnight on a Sunday night about stuff that needed to be sorted out by Monday morning. In short, different person have different views on how and for what email should be used. I should add that in my system, the university email is strictly not to be used for private emailing.

I am therefore interested in hearing about if and if so how one can establish an email policy which provides guidelines for reasonable emailing practices within a department.

I have heard about guidelines against sending mails from off duty hours, about avoiding disputes over email, and about reasonable (expected) response times, etc. but have so far failed to locate any good sources for such practices and guidelines.

  • If you could explain the management context of your institution / system's culture it would help. If you're under New Public Management with the right to audit and direct you're in a different situation from an elected rotating department chair who can advise and form consent. – Samuel Russell Apr 22 '13 at 22:09
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    @SamuelRussell Our system would be the latter with rotating positions for head etc. (3 year basis). In essence all faculty are otherwise on an equal basis, a very flat organization where the head is ultimately and formally responsible for personell, finances etc. With a policy or guidelines to good practise and behaviour it is easier for everyone to adjuste expectations and behaviour if deviating from the "norm". – Peter Jansson Apr 22 '13 at 22:28
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    Can you add some information about what exactly you want to accomplish with the departmental email policy? Is it to reduce email load? Avoid confrontation with colleagues on email lists? Reduce overwork and stress? Other? – Irwin Apr 23 '13 at 0:53
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    I strongly disagree with any policy which would prevent me from e-mailing at any time of day or night. But the issue seems to be that people are expecting immediate responses, which seems quite unreasonable. In my view, the relevant policy is "When are working hours?" – Anonymous Apr 23 '13 at 3:14
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    Setting policy without understanding what your objectives are is a fool's errand. If you do know what your objectives are, the first question you should ask yourself is: Is setting a policy really the best way to achieve those objectives? And, in an academic department, if you answered "yes" to that question, you might want to ask yourself that question a few more times until you achieve enlightenment. :-) – D.W. Apr 23 '13 at 5:50

Do issues like this really need a policy to govern them? If someone in a department has a problem responding to emails in a timely manner, it seems to me that it would be better to counsel them directly. Creating a policy for it may come across as passive-aggressive.

Corporations may have formal policies about how to answer email, and how to organize your desk, and how to change the toilet paper in the restroom. But academics are used to a considerable degree of autonomy, and dislike being micromanaged.

My humble opinion.

up vote 3 down vote accepted

After searching and collating ideas from numerous internet sources (a simple search provides plenty of sources of variable quality and usefulness) I have come up with the list below. In my own case there are over-arching rules about usage of university e-mail, which for example makes it clear that the university mail should not be used for private purposes and that all e-mails are public documents. Since each organization probably have such central rules, I have omitted such points and concentrated on good practises in the professional email correspondence.

  • Be courteous. Beware that written communication is more likely to be misunderstood than personal communication. Include courteous greetings and closings to prevent your e-mail seem demanding or terse. Don't hesitate to say thank you, how are you, or appreciate your help! Sign your name and include contact details in the footer of the mail.

  • Be concise and clear. Keep e-mails brief and to the point. Make sure your point(s) is (are) clear from the beginning. Be sure to fill out the Subject: field and that it accurately reflects the content of your email. It is sometimes better to write several mails than to fill one mail full of questions on different topics, alternatively number them. Save long conversations for a telephone/Skype/personal meeting.

  • Proofread. Read your email out loud to ensure the tone is that which you desire. Avoid spelling and grammatical errors. Try to avoid relying on formatting for emphasis; rather choose the words that reflect your meaning instead. A few additions of the words "please" and "thank you" go a long way!

  • Avoid emotions. Do not attempt to solve emotional problems or issues over e-mail. Instead, suggest a personal meeting. Always wait at least a day before attempting to send or answering emotional e-mails. Keep copies of all such correspondence and seek advice from colleagues to prevent issues to build.

  • Received e-mails. Always try to answer an e-mail within a workday or two. Always acknowledge the receipt of a mail as soon as you can if you are not able to provide a comprehensive reply within a day or two.

  • Sending E-mails. Never use an old email to hit reply and start typing about an entirely new topic. Do not send e-mails during weekends or off hours since this may give off the wrong signals or excuse yourself if you do. Do not expect immediate answers to your e-mails. A couple of days is a reasonable delay. Use a phone or visit the colleague if something is urgent.

  • Using Cc:, Bcc: and Return Receipts. Include addresses in the To: field for those who you would like a response from. Include addresses in the Cc: field for those who you are just informing. Remove the addresses of those who your reply does not apply to when replying to an email with multiple recipients noted in the To: or Cc: fields. Use Return Receipt sparingly since it can be viewed as intrusive and annoying; save it for when you really need to know.

These points can be summarized by: Mail others as you would have them mail you!

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    I would not be happy with a policy against sending e-mail during weekends or off hours (or even a suggestion that this is something that requires excusing yourself). From my perspective, it's fine to send e-mail whenever it's convenient for you, as long as you don't expect a reply at an inconvenient time for the recipient. – Anonymous Mathematician Dec 29 '13 at 17:23
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    I would upvote this except for the part about not sending on the weekends. People have different schedules; but more to the point, I might be thinking about something on Saturday and fire something off. The second part about "do not expect immediate answers" should be good enough. – NotMe Mar 19 '14 at 23:49

I've heard of a few trainings that help new employees get integrated inside a large organization. In my case, it was an offshore division of a large, IT company who was training its employees on how to communicate effectively.

That said, the goals of your organization, a University, would be very different from a multinational.

Nonetheless, here's some of the notes from that training:

  • When you write email, write email about one topic only. If you need to discuss another topic, that should be in a separate email.

  • Ensure that the contents written in the body of the email are about the subject.

  • Write very clear, descriptive subject lines. ("ex: Problems with implementing FooBar" vs. "Got a problem"). Often it is helpful to include square brackets that describe the project of your email as well. Ex: "[Budget 2013] Need review of the FY03 proposals by Friday."

  • If someone asks you for help and you know who to contact, instead of just telling them to contact John Doe or Jane Doe, reply to the original sender and CC John and Jane as part of your reply.

I don't know if these are helpful at all - this is mostly a list of examples rather than an actual straight-up policy.

  • These are fine guidelines, but the problem is that they are extremely elementary. They might be fine guidance for new employees who have never used email in their life, but not for experienced faculty who deal with hundreds of emails each day. If my department chair sent our faculty a policy with these guidelines, I would be slightly insulted. (What, does he think I don't know how to use email?) – D.W. Apr 23 '13 at 5:48

Being highly responsive (and attentive) to email may be in direct conflict with productivity; only some messages have truly high priority (and senders often don't have full perspective on this).

For some faculty, the measure of productivity is funding and publication, which are unlikely to correlate strongly with email responsiveness in general.

Other faculty may have a role that requires responsiveness.

Faculty should have clear overall goals, and expectations for mundane tasks (like email) should be set with those goals in mind. For some, email might best be relegated to short bursts once a day (with selected emails assigned high priority, of course).

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