Email Etiquette: CC and BCC Are Not Your Friends

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Do you work at a company where everyone is copied on everything?  My work has shown me that so much email a company generates is unnecessary, ineffective, and primarily unread.  Many of these are sent as a cc or a bcc.  The fact that these acronyms stand for “carbon copy” and “blind carbon copy” should give you an idea that their time has passed.  Who even remembers what a “carbon copy” is?

I want to point out some of the reasons I’ve seen these used, and give you some ideas for improving your effectiveness with email.

Cc for FYI

Bad Idea: Sometimes a cc is used to “keep people in the loop.”  Perhaps you copy someone on an email because you want them to know what’s going on.  This is not the best way to keep your co-workers informed.  First, your recipient has to read through the message to figure out why they got it.  And then they may not glean from it what you intended them to know.  What’s more likely, if the message is not addressed to them, they probably didn’t read it at all. Maybe they just deleted it, or perhaps they moved it to a reference folder, or they marked it as unread but kept it in their inbox.  All of these are ineffective for the recipient, because they cause clutter, but also you have not met your objective by sending it to them in the first place.  This is one of the most frequent causes of communication breakdown in an organization.

Better: If you want someone to know something you’ve put in an email, cut and paste the information and send it in a separate email directly to them.  Then there is no chance for misinterpretation and a lower chance that it will be overlooked.  Alternately, address them directly in the original message, near the top. For example, “Hi Jane – I’m writing to summarize our meeting.  Mary, I’m copying you because I wanted you to know what we agreed upon yesterday.”

Cc for CYA

Bad Idea: Maybe you’re not really sure if you’re on the right track, so you copy your boss, figuring that this will give her an opportunity to correct you if she doesn’t agree with your course of action.  See above.  She’s probably not reading it, and copying her does not absolve you of responsibility anyway.  This is another source of communication breakdown within an organization, sometimes with damaging results.

Better: Run your intentions by your boss prior to the communication.  Or, as above, address your boss directly in the message and invite her input.  For example: “Jane, I think we should go with the 5×7 flier.  Mary, please let me know if you disagree.”

Bcc for Private Communication

Bad Idea: You’ve probably heard at least one horror story about a Bcc gone embarrassingly awry.  A common use for bcc is to share a message with someone that you don’t want the recipient to know you shared.  Ethics aside, there is simply too much potential for unintended consequences with a bcc.

Better: If you want to privately copy someone on a message, send it 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, “Mary, below is the message I sent to Jane to call attention to her frequent tardiness.”

Employing these ideas can allow you to set an example for communication within your organization, minimize communication breakdowns, cut down on email clutter, and save everyone some time.

If you have other ideas or thoughts, of course I’d love to read them in the comments.  Thanks for reading!

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  1. Melissa Gibson says:

    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.

    • mauranevel says:

      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!

  2. 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.

    • Maura Thomas says:

      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!

  3. 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

  4. 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!

    • Maura Thomas says:

      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.

        • Maura Thomas says:

          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!

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