Note: This post was updated on February 20, 2021
When it’s used effectively, email helps people maintain good relations with others. I think most people would agree that effective email management, and good email etiquette, suggests we avoid overwhelming people with unnecessary messages. But, through my work, I’ve seen too many companies generate an avalanche of unnecessary email using cc and bcc.
Using cc or bcc in email means that you send your message to one or more other people in addition to the primary recipients who are listed in the ‘to’ line. You might use cc and bcc when you want to send information to people you believe need to be informed, even though they are not the person you are communicating with directly.
While making good use of cc and bcc is valuable, they tend to be overused, leading to poor email etiquette within organizations. You can help yourself and others improve email etiquette by discovering, and using, more effective ways of managing tools like cc and bcc. In this article you will find detailed definitions of cc and bcc as well as descriptions of common misuses and more effective alternatives.
Implementing these methods will help you and your colleagues reclaim time for focused work by changing the way you, and they, send professional email. After reading, if you would like more solutions to help you regain control of your email, take a look at any of these articles:
- 4 Steps to Fix Email Overload
- Help Your Team with Email Management Strategies
- Business Email Writing Tips that Work Like Magic
- Time Saving Email Tips
- After Hours Email is Ruining Your Life!
Definition of Cc vs Bcc
If you’re wondering what the abbreviations cc and bcc stand for, the answer is: cc stands for carbon copy and bcc stands for blind carbon copy.
Carbon paper was used during the middle of the 20th century to automatically create copies of important documents for sharing. But thanks to the rise of printers, photocopiers, and digital file sharing, it’s been practically extinct for many years.
In email, we use carbon copy and blind carbon copy to include people other than those we are directly messaging. Most people generally use cc and bcc to help others stay informed.
One difference between cc and bcc is that when you list a person in the cc line, everyone who received the email will be able to see that the cc’d person received it. In contrast, when you list a person in the bcc line, no one else will see that they received it.
Another important difference is that, if any of the secondary recipients listed in either the cc or bcc line hits ‘reply all’ to respond, everyone that you included in the cc line will be cc’d again, but no one that you included in the bcc line will be included again. With one important exception. And that exception is something to be wary of when using bcc.
The exception is that if anyone listed in the bcc line decides to respond and clicks ‘reply all,’ instead of reply, to do so, everyone listed in the to and cc lines will receive their response and subsequently become alerted to the fact that they were bcc’d in the original email. So, if you listed them in the bcc line specifically to prevent others from knowing they were included, you’ll be outed if they hit reply all to respond to your original message.
Cc and bcc are great tools that can serve important purposes, but too often they are used not because they are the right solution for the given situation, but the easiest. More often than not, an alternative solution will be the best. Continue reading to learn about some useful alternatives.
The Problem with Cc and Bcc in Email
Misusing cc and bcc overwhelms people with too much information. Stuffing inboxes with unnecessary information makes email a distraction, diminishing its value and our ability to maintain focus on important work.
By distracting attention from important work, this breach of professional email etiquette has serious consequences that sabotage productivity for individuals and companies.
Am I correct in thinking that you need more uninterrupted periods of time to do something other than process email? I’m confident that I am. I have learned that most people need more time to dedicate attention to work that requires deep, sustained focus.
Mastering attention management creates that opportunity for sustained focus. It requires using email efficiently rather than allowing it to be a distraction. I’m going to continue talking in this post about cc, bcc, and email etiquette, but if you are interested in learning more about how attention management can help, you can click here at any time to read ‘What Is Attention Management and How Can It Help You.’
Cc Isn’t the Best Way to Say ‘FYI’
One of the most common misuses of cc is to keep people in the loop.
Do you, or other people you know, cc others on emails just to let them know what’s going on? While the intention is good, using cc as “for your information” is not the best way to keep co-workers informed.
Yes, it’s easier to add a cc to any email than to write multiple, custom emails providing only the information needed by a given recipient. But that can ultimately end up being a productivity drain in several ways:
- Since the message was not primarily addressed to them, your cc’d recipient might not read it at all. This can lead to confusion and miscommunication. And it adds to the email clutter weighing on your recipient.
- If they do read your email, trying to discern why you included them and what parts of the message they really need to know takes time out of their day.
- There’s no guarantee that the people you cc’d will come away with what you intended to convey
What to Do Instead
Instead of cc’ing someone, cut the information you want to share from your original email and paste it into a new message to the person you want to keep informed. In your introduction, explain why you’re passing the information along.
This is a sign of respect to others and because it’s a clearer way of communicating, it helps them maintain their focus. It also increases the odds that they’ll actually open your email and eliminates the chance they’ll misinterpret your message.
Add People to Conversations Without Using Cc
Using cc to keep others in the loop is especially risky when you aren’t the originator of an email thread.
For example, let’s say you send an email to your colleagues Betty and Carlos. Betty writes back — and cc’s your other co-workers Debra and Eric.
This is a big lapse of professional email etiquette. You intended the conversation to be among you, Betty and Carlos. But Betty expanded the conversation without your permission, which shows disrespect.
What to Do Instead
What’s a better strategy here? During the initial email exchange, Betty could say something like, “This is all really relevant to what Debra and Eric have been working on lately. What would you think about bringing them into the discussion?”
Don’t CYA With a Cc
We all find ourselves in situations where we aren’t completely sure we’re on the right track at work. Some people try to handle these situations by cc’ing their boss, who they believe is sure and, they think, will chime in to provide accurate information if necessary.
But this strategy doesn’t always work as expected. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you’re feeling a little unsure about the directions you’re giving to a contractor on a big project, so you cc your boss in your email to the contractor. You figure that this will give your boss an opportunity to correct you if she doesn’t agree with your course of action. But this cc doesn’t actually accomplish much.
As I mentioned earlier, your boss might not even read the email at all since it wasn’t addressed to her. And if she does, she might not realize that you are cc’ing her to confirm she agrees with you. And also, cc’ing her does not absolve you of responsibility.
What to Do Instead
When you’re unsure, it’s better to run your intentions by your boss before communicating with the contractor. Or add your boss to the “to” line, and then address her in the message and invite her input. For example: “Francesca, I think we should go with the 5×7 flier. Gerry, please let us know if you disagree.”
If you manage a team or a company, it’s a great idea to create a company-wide email policy that can include rules like not adding someone to an existing email thread. Want some help setting your company email policy? In this post, I help readers figure out how to create an email policy that improves productivity.
Avoid Passive-Aggressive Cc’ing
Here’s another cc’ing gaffe that often drives people crazy: adding a new person to a thread in order to pressure the recipient of the email to respond.
Let’s say Eric emails you with a question. But a couple of days pass and you fail to reply. (Hey, things have been crazy.)
So Eric emails his question to you again, this time cc’ing your boss.
To put it mildly, this is not productive. It damages Eric’s working relationship with you. And it wastes time for your boss.
What to Do Instead
My recommendation in this situation goes back to an important principle: part of being a productive business communicator is choosing the right channel to get your message across.
In this case, Eric should have found a more direct way to circle back with you than cc’ing your boss, perhaps with a phone call or in-person visit.
Micromanaging Via Cc
It’s especially damaging when a leader demonstrates bad email etiquette by requiring that their direct reports cc them on all communications.
I’ve heard clients complain about managers who required that their direct reports cc them on all communications. Not cool! This is micromanaging, and it can even be seen as bullying.
When I speak to leadership teams affected by this issue, I suggest they examine where it’s coming from. Do they distrust their employees? Do they have control issues?
What to Do Instead
If you’re a manager who does this, stop. You’re making yourself and your team members less productive. Then address any underlying issues that have been driving you to act this way.
Beware of Bcc
Ethically, you’re getting on shaky ground with a bcc.
A common use for bcc is sharing a message with someone that you don’t want the primary recipient to know about.
Be Careful of Unintended Consequences
But ethics aside, there is simply too much potential for unintended consequences with a bcc. For example, I’m sure you’ve heard about, or even experienced, horror stories about Bcc’s gone awry, such as when someone didn’t realize they were Bcc’d and hits ‘reply all’ to respond.
What to Do Instead
I teach a safer way to handle situations in which you need to privately share an email: First, send your email to the primary recipient. Then go into your “sent” folder and forward the message, alerting the “private” recipient why you are sending it to them. For example, “Betty, below is the message I sent to Debra to call attention to her frequent tardiness.”
When It’s OK to Use Bcc
There is only one situation where using bcc is good email etiquette: sending a large group email.
If you’re sending a large group email, use bcc to protect your recipients’ privacy, and to prevent anyone in the group from “replying all,” especially with unnecessary messages, like “thank you.”
I hope this article serves as a valuable resource for you and your coworkers. If you would like to learn more about great professional email etiquette, I’ve added below additional insight into email best practices and how email can support, rather than stifle, your productivity.
And, you can click these links if you would like to learn more about Attention Management, or my Empowered Productivity workflow management system. Or, contact me at any time to talk about specific issues in your organization and whether my solutions are a fit for your speaking and training needs.
More About Email Etiquette
Navigating cc and bcc is just one aspect of practicing good email etiquette. This, in turn, helps your colleagues—and yourself—be more productive. Here are a few more email etiquette tips that support healthy attention management.
- Avoid or Reduce After-Hour Emails. You might send an email late at night. Why? Because the topic is fresh in your mind and you don’t want to forget about it. You figure it’s OK since you don’t need an immediate reply. But your message still keeps the recipient from disconnecting from work and getting the relaxing, restorative time they need outside the office.It’s both kinder and more productive to hold non-urgent emails until standard business hours. If something urgent comes up, call or text instead of emailing.Leaders, you can support your team’s productivity by setting guidelines in your office around after-hours email. To learn more, see my HBR article “Your Late Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team.”
- Be Clear About Response Times What does it mean to be “responsive to email”? Different people have different standards around responsiveness. The important thing is to be on the same page as the people you communicate with.If you lead a team, you could set a guideline that email is used for routine requests only. (Email was never intended to be synchronous communication! Anything requiring a faster response should be handled via another communications channel.)This frees your team members from feeling that they should constantly check their inboxes and gives them more time for uninterrupted work.
- Write Thoughtful Emails Putting just a little more time into the emails you send can make them a lot more clear. This will cut down on miscommunicationOne thing you can do to help your email recipients is writing more information-rich subject lines. For example, instead of using “important!” as your subject line, go ahead and say what’s so important: “3 p.m. meeting canceled.”In the body of your message, help your colleagues be more efficient. To do this, be as descriptive and specific as possible, especially if you are asking the recipients to do something. For example, it’s more direct to write “Please review this agenda before Friday’s meeting” instead of just “agenda for Friday.”
- Don’t Jump the Thread This means you should confine messages to whatever is in the subject line. For example, if someone emails you with the subject, “meeting minutes,” and the content has the minutes of the meeting, don’t reply with a subject line, “Re: meeting minutes,” but have the message be about something completely unrelated. In this case, it’s better to start a new message with a new subject line.
Practicing good email etiquette improves your relationships with your colleagues and helps all of you be more productive.
Increase Productivity and Improve Email Etiquette
Check out my books to find more email strategies like the ones in this post:
- “Personal Productivity Secrets“
- “Work Without Walls” (recommended for workplace leaders)
- “Attention Management“
- “From To-Do to Done“
- “The Happy Inbox“