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CC, BCC, Reply to All – the deadly trio, Part 1.

How to drive each other crazy using three simple e-mail functions


e-mail overload

Show me your e-mail habits, I will see your corporate culture

The way employees in an organisation use their e-mail can tell us a lot about the organisation’s culture. Is e-mail the main form of communication, or do people prefer calling each other or talking in person? How quickly do people reply to an e-mail they receive? Does the answer arrive promptly or does it take a week to get a reply? Are e-mails typically short and informal, or long, elaborate and very polite?

There are many aspects of e-mailing that would be worth looking at; however, in this article we focus on only one aspect: colleagues’ use of three related functions: CC, BCC and Reply all.

If you work in a big company, I’m sure that some of the annoying e-mail habits related to the use and misuse of these three functions will strike a chord with you.


CC everybody, reply to everybody

Nowadays, if you work in a large company, typically around 30-50% of the mail you get is actually sent to somebody else. You are only in the CC line. (If you get much fewer CCs, consider yourself lucky.) This means that your mailbox is cluttered with information that is not relevant to you at all: you are part of a silent audience in conversations you have nothing to do with.

Some argue that this is not a problem. Just skip the e-mails that you feel are not relevant to you. Good point. But when you get 100 or more e-mails a day, the decision whether to skip or not takes an enormous amount of time in itself.

As an e-mail writer I often have the feeling that I am just too busy – in other words, too lazy – to think about who to include and who not to include in a given e-mail thread. I will just reply to all, and let everybody decide whether they want to read it or not. The pitfall to this approach is that, in a community of like-minded e-mail writers, this habit can spread like a virus. The result is huge information overload. Mailboxes become so full that they make you scream when you open them.

How can you fight against this phenomenon without losing too much information or a grip on what is happening in your organisation?


CC to blur responsibility

One phenomenon which makes the “CC culture” even more difficult to cope with is what I call “Copy and blur responsibility”.

“Hi guys, could you look into this and reply to the customer asap?” writes the boss in his e-mail. There are six recipients altogether, evenly distributed between the “To” and the “CC” lines.

So who should do it exactly? It would make sense that only people who are in the “To” line should act – but then which one? And what about the unpleasant conversation when the boss later stops one of the “CC guys” in the corridor to ask whether the customer has got a reply yet? “How come you have no idea?” asks the boss. “I sent you a message about it this morning. So who is dealing with the issue? You don’t even know that? I can’t believe I am the only person who takes responsibility in this whole department.”

So does CC mean that you have to act? If this is the case, up to six people will jump at the task. What a waste of resources. Alternatively somebody in the “To” line will act. But then are you, as a “CC”, expected to be up-to-date with the status of the given task at all times?

How can we clarify responsibilities in such cases?


CC the boss!

A special subcase of the CC culture is one in which at least one boss is included in the CC line in every second e-mail that is sent.

“Dear Peter, could you please fill in the forms that I had sent you last week and send them back to me today by 5pm. Regards, Julia.” CC: Peter’s boss, Peter’s boss’s boss, Julia’s boss.

So what does the CC mean in this message?

CCing the bosses all the time indicates a culture with no trust. I CC my own boss to demonstrate that I have done my part of the job, whatever happens, it will be not my fault – a clear defensive strategy. I CC your boss to put extra pressure on you, because I don’t trust you to do it without the implicit threat – an offensive strategy.

How can we get out of the offensive-defensive mode that feeds the habit of CCing the boss?


BCC culture

BCC is essentially designed to enable you to talk with somebody behind the recipient’s back. After all, if you send the e-mail to somebody else apart from the recipient, why shouldn’t the recipient know about it? Why can’t it be transparent?

Of course, there are always some special cases when BCC is the logical, clear and fair option. One example of this is e-mail lists. When you send an e-mail to a large number of recipients, then naturally you want to protect their anonymity.

However, if you catch yourself often using BCC in internal e-mails, or you get many BCCs, you might want to start thinking about your corporate culture. What is all this secretiveness about? Why do we want to go behind each other’s backs? What stands in the way of transparent communication?


In next week’s article I will discuss how to get out of these dysfunctional e-mail habits.