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Note: This post was updated on November 24, 2020

If it feels like everyone at your workplace is always copied on every email, you’re not alone. As a productivity trainer I’ve seen that most companies generate a lot of unnecessary email messages. And many of those messages are sent as a cc or bcc. 

Here’s a deeper look at cc and bcc along with most productive, and courteous, ways to use and NOT use them.

 

Jump to a Section in this Post

Definition of Cc vs Bcc
The Problem with Cc and Bcc in Email
Cc Isn’t the Best Way to Say ‘FYI’
Don’t CYA with a Cc
Add People to Conversations Without Using Cc
Avoid Passive-Aggressive Cc’ing
Micromanaging via Cc
Beware of Bcc
When It’s OK to use Bcc vs Cc

Five Top Take-Aways from this Post
In Case You’re Curious: More About Email Etiquette

 

Definition of Cc vs Bcc

A woman runs from a mountain made of envelopes symbolizing an overload of email

 

If you’re wondering what the abbreviations cc and bcc stand for, the answer is “carbon copy” and “blind carbon copy.” 

Now, if you’re not exactly sure what a carbon copy is, that’s totally understandable. 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. 

What’s the difference between bc and bcc? Here’s a quick refresher.

What Is Cc?

Using cc means that you send the email to another person — or other people — in addition to the primary recipient or recipients. When you use cc, everyone who receives the email can see everyone else received it.

What Is Bcc?

Bcc (blind carbon copy) also sends a copy of the email to one or more people beyond the primary recipient(s). But, in this case, those who receive the email will not be able to see everyone else who received it. That’s the difference between cc vs bcc. Those who you bcc won’t be visible to the other recipients.

For example, if you send an email to [email protected] and bcc [email protected] and [email protected], Alvin won’t know that Betty and Carlos received a copy of the email. Additionally, Betty won’t know that Carlos received a copy, and vice versa.

 

 

The Problem with Cc and Bcc in Email

Misusing cc and bcc is inefficient, ineffective and bad email etiquette. Simply stated, it’s generally a great way to annoy colleagues. But this breach of email etiquette also has a more serious consequence. 

Overuse Decreases Productivity

Stuffing inboxes with unnecessary information reduces recipients’ opportunity to dedicate enough attention to important work. In short, it diminishes their opportunity to benefit from the most valuable skill of our time.

We all need uninterrupted periods of time to do more than process email. We need time to dedicate attention to accomplishing tasks that require deep, sustained thought or focus. 

Use Other Methods

The goals we try to accomplish by using cc and bcc can almost always be better achieved through other means. You can help your colleagues reclaim time for focused work by changing the way you, and they, send email. 

 

Cc Isn’t the Best Way to Say ‘FYI’

One of the most common uses of cc is to keep people in the loop. Do you, or other people you know, habitually 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 cc 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. That can lead to confusion and miscommunication. And it adds to the email clutter weighing on your recipient.
  • If they do read it, 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 they’ll come away with what you intended to convey.

 

Don’t Use Cc as an FYI

To practice better email etiquette, stop using cc as an FYI. I often train corporate managers on how to best keep people in the loop. I advise them to reach out directly instead of using cc. 

This is a sign of respect to others and because it’s a clearer way of communicating, it helps them maintain their focus.

What to Do Instead

Instead of cc’ing someone, cut and paste the information you want to share from your original email. Explain why you’re passing the email along, and send it directly to the person you would have cc’d.

This eliminates the chance they’ll misinterpret your message, and it increases the odds that they’ll actually open your email.

Instead of cc’ing someone, put them in the “to” line and address them directly in the original message. For example, “Hi, Alvin – I’m writing to summarize our meeting. Carlos, I’m copying you because I wanted you to know what we agreed upon yesterday.”

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Don’t CYA With a Cc

 

We all find ourselves in situations where we aren’t sure we’re on the right track at work. Some people try to handle these situations with a strategy that just isn’t good email etiquette.

Cc’ing Your Boss

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.

Add Your Boss to the ‘To’ Line

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.”

 

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 email etiquette. You intended the conversation to be among you, Betty and Carlos. But Betty expanded the conversation without your permission, which shows disrespect.

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.

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?”

 

Avoid Passive-Aggressive Cc’ing

Here’s another cc’ing gaffe that drives people crazy. 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.

Choose the Right Channel for Your Message

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 when using cc and bcc.

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?

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

 

Now that we’ve covered the hazards of overusing cc, it’s time to talk about an even more fraught area: bcc.

A common use for bcc is sharing a message with someone that you don’t want the primary recipient to know about. Ethically, you’re getting on shaky ground with a bcc. 

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.

A Safer Strategy for Private Messages

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 one situation where using bcc is good email etiquette. 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.”

 

Five Top Take-Aways from this Post

  1. Stop using cc to keep people informed. Instead, cut and paste only the information you want to share from your original email and send it directly to the person you would have cc’d. Explain why you’re passing the information along.
  2. Don’t cc your boss as a way to get him or her to double-check the message. Instead, send a direct message to your boss first, and then send your approved message to the intended recipient.
  3. Do not require your direct reports to cc you on every message. This only communicates distrust.
  4. Instead of using bcc, send your message to the primary recipient. Then go into your sent folder and forward the email to the person you also want to see it. Explain why you are forwarding the message
  5. The one time it is good email etiquette to use bcc is when you’re sending an email to a large group. This prevents someone from hitting ‘Reply All’ and cluttering everyone’s inboxes.

Interested in learning more about how I help individuals and teams focus on their most important work, master distraction, and get more done? Here are a couple of blog posts to help you get started, along with a link to my online Empowered Productivity™ training program: Defining Productivity, Not As Productive as You Could Be?, and Empowered Productivity Online Training Program

 

In Case You’re Curious: 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-hours 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 miscommunication.

One 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. 

Check out my books to find more email strategies like the ones in this post:

Or, contact me to talk about specific issues in your organization and whether my solutions are a fit for your speaking and training needs.

 

 

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