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Note: This post was updated on November 5, 2019

If it feels like everyone at your workplace is always copied on every email, that’s inefficient, ineffective and bad email etiquette. Knowing when to use cc vs bcc is critical.

As a productivity trainer, speaker and author, 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. 

Misusing cc and bcc is a great way to annoy your colleagues! But this breach of email etiquette also has a more serious consequence.

We all need uninterrupted periods of time to accomplish tasks that require deep thought or focus. But today’s workplaces are so full of distractions (especially email) that it’s hard to claim that time for focused work.

You can help your colleagues reclaim time for focused work by changing the way you send email. And that includes using good email etiquette when you cc or bcc others.

So let’s look at the most productive and courteous ways to use — and NOT use — cc and bcc. 

 

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 in heavy use during the middle of the 20th century. But, thanks to the rise of printers and photocopiers, it’s been practically extinct for many years.

Cc and Bcc draw their names from a bygone era in the world of work. This should give us a clue that they’re not ideally suited to our needs today. However, the goals we try to accomplish by using Cc and Bcc can almost always be better achieved through other means.

What’s the difference between cc vs bcc? Here’s a quick refresher.

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 who else received it.

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, anyone 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.  

 

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 habitually copy others on your emails because you want them to know what’s going on? While your intention is good, using cc as “for your information” is not the best way to keep your co-workers informed.

Yes, it’s easy and quick to add a cc to any email, which probably makes you feel like you’re doing something productive. 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 takes time out of their day.
  • There’s no guarantee that they’ll come away with what you intended to convey.

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. It also helps leaders maintain their focus by communicating more clearly.

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.

Alternately, 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.”

 

Expanding the Conversation With a CC

Cc’ing 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.

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?”

 

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.

My recommendation in this situation goes back to something I always teach. 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.

 

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. 

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 we talked about 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 anyway.  This is another source of communication breakdown within an organization, sometimes with damaging results.

As I teach in my trainings, if you’re unsure, it’s better to run your intentions by your boss prior to the communication. Or add your boss to the “to” line address her in the message to invite her input. For example: “Francesca, I think we should go with the 5×7 flier. Gerry, please let me know if you disagree.”

 

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. (Not to mention the fact that you’re showing your bcc’d recipient that you’re the kind of person who sneaks around on email!)

But ethics aside, there is simply too much potential for unintended consequences with a bcc. You’ve no doubt heard about, or even experienced, horror stories about bcc’s gone awry, such as when someone exposed sensitive information because they didn’t realize they were bcc’d.

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 vs CC

There is one situation, though, 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.”

 

More About Email Etiquette

Navigating cc vs 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. 

 

Email Etiquette Strategies

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

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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