The 5 Worst Email Mistakes That Make You Look Unprofessional

While they may seem harmless, these errors can come back to haunt you.
To avoid misinterpretation, you need to double-check for these email mistakes.
skynesher via Getty Images
To avoid misinterpretation, you need to double-check for these email mistakes.

We use email to communicate important information with our colleagues every day ― and yet many of us, unwittingly, are doing it in ways that may make us look immature and less competent.

“When glaring errors are missed, it comes across as unprofessional and gives the impression that you don’t pay attention to details,” said Deb Lee, a digital productivity coach and consultant.

Here are some of the worst culprits of email unprofessionalism:

1. Your email has spelling and grammar errors.

There is nothing like the stomach-dropping dread of realising you misspelled your recipient’s name.

Spelling errors make you appear careless, which is why Lee says spelling and grammatical errors are two of the top mistakes that will make you look unprofessional.

To avoid these embarrassing missteps, double-check the spelling of your recipient’s name and any titles they have. Lee also suggested reading your email aloud so you can catch mistakes. “You’re more likely to catch them when you hear them,” she said.

Most email programs come with a spell-checker, so take advantage of it. Lee recommended browser extension features like Speechify for Gmail or ReadMe, a text-to-speech tool for Chrome that can read your email aloud.

And if you do make a mistake with someone’s name, “give your apologies and make sure to get it right the next time,” Lee said.

2. You hit ‘reply all’ automatically.

Roping all of your co-workers into a reply-all chain will make you the main character at work in a bad way.

“A big mistake I see people make is hitting the ‘reply all’ button without reflecting on whether a reply is necessary,” said career strategist Ana Goehner. “You may get stuck in a chain of ‘reply all’ messages, flooding your inbox with ‘Thank you’ or ‘Got it.’ Those unnecessary and irrelevant messages make people’s inboxes even more overwhelming.”

And don’t pile on to a reply-all and make it worse.

“There’s often an expectation that the sender of the email ‘should know better’ than to clutter someone’s inbox because they also know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of irrelevant emails,” Lee said. “It looks unprofessional because someone is seemingly ignoring or unaware [of] well-known email etiquette rules.”

Instead of hitting “reply all,” consider who needs to “be in the know” or be responsible for next steps, Lee said.

“Follow up with that person or specific set of people instead,” she suggested. “It can help to move action steps from email to a project management tool like Trello or Asana and assign those steps to the relevant parties.”

And if you do need to send an email to a lot of recipients, “it’s essential to use the BCC [blind carbon copy] field for every single recipient,” Goehner said.

If you CC some people, and then add others in the BCC line, “this action can raise red flags regarding trust and privacy issues because people won’t know who else is on BCC,” Goehner cautioned. By doing it for everyone, it will remove the “reply all” option and conceal recipients’ individual addresses.

“By using the BCC field for all recipients, you can ensure everyone’s privacy is respected,” Goehner said.

3. You’re too casual.

If you’re using cry-laughing emojis in serious work emails, you may get raised eyebrows from colleagues.

“Professionals often come across as unprofessional in their work emails when they’re too casual, using incomplete sentences and emojis, akin to texting,” said career coach Kristine Knutter. “Instead, professionals should adopt a more professional tone, using complete sentences and avoiding emojis.”

Without body language cues, emoticons that are intended as friendly can come across as menacing or off-putting. Don’t assume that your smiley emoticon is going to be seen as a warm smile over email, for example.

In a 2017 study for the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, University of Amsterdam researchers had 203 undergraduates compare a text from a hypothetical new colleague that included a smiley emoticon and a version of the text that didn’t have the emoticon. Both messages consisted of the same words, but in the smiley version, the greeting read in part: “I’m glad to work with you and I suggest starting asap. :) I look forward to working with you. :)”

The students rated the greeting with a smiley as significantly less competent than the words-only greeting. The lesson? When in doubt, save your GIFs and emoji reactions for your actual friends outside of work.

One other area of informality to watch out for is someone’s title. If you see that your recipient is a doctor or professor, for example, you should default to including that title in your messages with them, until they indicate otherwise in their email sign-off to you.

4. You write long-winded emails.

You don’t want to open an email from a co-worker and see a treatise. The best emails are straight to the point. The worst ones leave you more confused than before.

Avoid composing big blocks of texts with no paragraph breaks. People skim messages, and if your email is too long, your recipient may miss key details.

“To keep things clear and easy to digest, try breaking up your emails into shorter sentences and paragraphs and include bullet points,” Knutter recommended. “And don’t forget to clearly state what you need from the recipient and any deadlines you’re working with right from the start.”

To be an effective communicator, you should also know when it’s time to move the conversation offline. If your email is becoming a story, that’s your sign to use another form of communication like a formal explainer document or a phone call, Goehner said.

“Sometimes, a phone call or even a screen-recorded video explaining something is more straightforward than typing a long list of instructions in an email,” she said. “People like to receive information in different ways. For some people, voice and video can be more helpful than reading details.”

5. You fire off an email when you’re angry.

Emails are not just communication tools ― they can also serve as documentation of your behaviour. That’s why you should never send a message when you are feeling angry, because you may write something you can’t take back.

“Bad-mouthing your colleagues via email is a big mistake. While it can be tempting to vent about that frustrating meeting, it’s unprofessional at best and a fireable offence at worst,” said career coach Anne Genduso.

Be aware of your emotional state and don’t send emails in such moments. Instead, take responsibility for your professional communication and take time to reflect before you react.

When you feel your temper rising, Goehner recommended clearing your mind with a walk, or journaling that first email draft in a Word document that you don’t save. “It’s an excellent way to get the negative feelings out of your mind,” she said.

And as a general rule, only email what you are comfortable saying to someone directly. “Don’t write something you wouldn’t say to someone in person,” Goehner said. “Don’t hide behind the message.”