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“
Or, click here to contact me to talk about specific issues in your organization and whether my solutions are a fit for your speaking and training needs.
Thank you for this. I find cc can be used as a way to bully and/or ‘dob’ at work. It seems very strange to me when I am in email conversation with someone and they suddenly reply to me and cc my boss. Or initiate an email to me complaining about something and cc their boss – why not speak to me directly? As soon as someone does this, my opinion of them is changed and I am wary of them. I know to keep things offline and actually avoid conversations with them. Hardly conducive to work.
Thanks for your thoughts, Melissa! I agree. I find that usually people do this when they fail to receive an initial response, but I agree with you regarding people who do this right off the bat. It’s rude!
I believe it is a bully/coward move when you email someone and instead of asking if they got your email, you send it again CCing the boss. What ever happened to just communicating with each other?
I realize your article is about in-house work emails. Your article is misleading, though, because it vilifies using BCC. For large group email lists – BCC is the only responsible way to protect everyone’s names and emails addresses. Many spambots look for large “to” or “cc” email lists. You give BCC a bad rap, when used properly (to circulate information to a large group of people – such as a list that wants news of a band’s engagements, etc. You did not point out the distinction of when to properly use BCC. Because being a recipient of a 200 person cc or to list is not only rude and thoughtless, it is incredibly presumptive, puts the whole list at danger from spambots and identity thieves, and is just plain rude.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Sadie! I completely agree that using BCC to prevent “reply all” is an EXCELLENT use of the feature. It’s one of the few but you’ve made a great point. Thanks so much for adding to the information!
I agree with the unnecessary use of cc…..clutter, irrelevant and not productive
Last two roles have done this….it drives me insane….everyone misses things and receives circa 150 emails a day…only a quarter of the emails are relevant
Thanks for reading and for sharing your input!
The thing that most annoys me at my job is the misuse and abuse of CC – the number of times a person will send me an email claiming I haven’t done something I was allegedly supposed to do – and then to maximise the damage (and their righteous position) CC’s in normally multiple authority/people senior to me. One is forced to hit reply-all to defend oneself – but thereby perpetuating the saga. A tempting response is “Dear X, when you CC in multiple authority figures into a standard request for information from a colleague, it makes it look like you don’t feel confident to do your job, but need the constant help and reassurance of the boss and all the others you keep cc-ing into simple requests. The CC-ed in people do not want the original email in their inbox. They want you to do your job on your own without consultation.” Do you or anyone have any advice on why people are doing this at work and how to best handle it? Thanks!
Susan, I agree, that is a tough situation. The approach I would take is to be direct: speak privately to the offender but assume that their motives are innocent. Just politely ask that they come directly to you, and you alone, with requests, as it will you allow you to address the issue and spare the others from unnecessary emails. I would expect that to remedy the situation but if not, you could escalate from there. I hope that helps and thanks for reading!
My boss makes me cc her on every internal request for information from a coworker as well as that coworker’s boss. If she doesn’t like the way I worded something, she rewords it (I’m an editor, and she’s the editorial director). I am terrified that the repercussions of her email micromanaging will be exactly as you describe—people will be wary of trusting me. Hate, hate, HATE having to cc people.
Oh my! I’m sorry to hear of that experience! Micromanaging is challenging. When I speak for CEO and leadership teams, I suggest they examine where that is coming from: whether it’s distrust in the employee or their own control issues. I’m sure you thought of speaking with her regarding your discomfort. It sounds like something a business coach (or internal mentor) might help you navigate. Good luck and thanks for reading!
I work at a company where I’m required to cc my boss on every email. We work on projects and my boss wants to see the interactions between clients. Also we work in teams where we support each other and lean on each others knowledge and experience. I think copying people in your team is important and your article promotes individualism. To me, this is ok if the sender is experienced and knows what they are doing, but especially if they are beginners at their craft, or even experienced employees whose employer requires them to copy others on their emails, I do not see what the big deal is as long as they are not micro managed.
Thanks Chris! I don’t know what it’s like at your company, but it sounds like email threads become places to store historical information. This isn’t productive. That information belongs in a more public place, such as in a CRM, an internal wiki, or a team collaboration tool like Twist (www.twist.com).
The MD of my company sent my manager an email berating me and my team. Myself and my team were all cc’d as well as other department managers in head office. Is this ethical ?
I’m sorry to hear that! Business ethics is not my area of expertise, but I would certainly say that the MD exhibited poor leadership skills! That sounds like a no-win situation for your team, unless the organization has a Board of Directors, or HR department, or someone above the Managing Director who can hear your case and mediate the situation. Good luck!
I think CCing everyone is great! Everything is transparent and open. I actually avoid people who don’t cc everyone. To me not ccing everyone tells me you have something to hide And why should we hide what needs to be emailed at work? The more information everyone shares at work the better. Keeping info and not sharing even minor details is harmful to the organization.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Jay! I think if it works in your office, that’s great! In my experience, everyone is drowning in email, and anything that can be done to lessen the email burden is welcome. I wonder if your co-workers have the same attitude as you? It might inform your behavior to know the answer to that question. Good luck!
I use BCC all the time, mainly when I send an email to all the members of the local council of my fraternal organization. It affords the members some privacy by not showing their email addresses publically.
Thanks Domenick! Yes, you are correct, that is a great use of BCC, and I should have mentioned it in the article. Thanks for adding to the “conversation!”
And, let’s not forget all those idiots who just cc everyone in order to generate the illusion that they are accomplishing useful work.
Hmm..while I agree with alot of what you said, and might change the way I do things from now on, I have a very disorganized boss and often forgets to communicate certain things to let’s say HR or Payroll. When things happen at my job, Payroll has no idea and it messes with pay and other paper work. I keep payroll personnel in on a CC in certain emails because at least everyone knows everyone has been informed. Sometimes it becomes a he said she said, I wasn’t told, I was told only partial story etc…to CC someone else I feel is a little of my own protection to prove, I did my part. In all honesty, I think my boss likes that, as it becomes one less “chore” to handle.
Thanks for your thoughtful response! I understand that there is no “one size fits all” solution, but hopefully the ideas will be useful in other situations.
This is the best, logical explanation and advice on this topic that I have seen. Thank you. I am going to share this with my coworkers. We have way too much cc’ing, CYA, and micromanaging goin on.
Ted, thanks so much for your feedback! I’m glad you found it useful!
Very good post. I definitely love this website.
Thanks for reading and commenting! Glad you are enjoying the site!
I don’t agree. cc is very effective if done correctly and shouldn’t be seen as an escalation everytime. I always ask others to cc me if I want to be aware of what’s going on on a particular topic but I am not the one to whom the email is addressed to.
Declaring cc an outright no no would just create a bad notion and anyone reading this article may build a perception to not to use cc ever at all and claim it as a bad etiquette to anyone using it.
The article is good but lacks clarity. It should be more like “When to use cc” and “When not to use cc”.
As a PM, I have a product go-live in next 1 week with 10 different teams involved who have several dependencies. I drop an email to the very first team in the chain asking for a status while ccing the others. This is how you keep everyone in loop which was and is the original purpose of the cc. Now, if someone in that whole chain has read your article and is deeply inspired, will send an email bashing me that it’s not a good practice and please stop doing it 🙂 declaring that’s a bad etiquette.
Also, sometimes it’s important when you are working in a complex environment and you reach out to someone to get something done. The person don’t care at all to acknowledge that he/she has received your email and even after reminders you don’t get any response. (Note that you cannot just call anyone all the time). I would always advice to cc his manager and request for an update. This is the most professional and correct way of making things transparent.
Though your article has some really good suggestions and points but overall projects cc in a very bad light which I believe is not true 🙂
Hi Aashish, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments. In your circumstance, I believe the problem is using email for project-related information. In this case, you’re correct that cc’s are necessary but this creates excessive information for everyone, and rather than having a central source of information for the project, it’s distributed in everyone’s email inboxes where it can’t be organized and accessed by the whole team. For team projects, I recommend a project management or team communication tool where all information about a project can be stored, organized, and accessed by everyone, and thereby saving excessive group emails where everyone needs to be cc’d to be kept in the loop on the project. Thanks again for reading!
Thank you for this information. I have a job interview to become a Customer Relationship Manager, and I really needed a refresher on what is the main philosophy when it comes to CRM. Very Helpful!
Wonderful, glad you found it useful, and good luck on the job interview!