To CC: Or Not To CC:
That is the question. It is rife with more complexity than meets the eye. I remember co-workers being genuinely pissed off when they were left off an email and automatically assumed that the sender had it out for them.
Another time, a senior executive and I discussed for nearly five minutes the ORDER in which emails were typed into the CC: field. Seriously.
Let’s unpack the motivations behind why people use the carbon-copy:
- To CYA (Cover Your A$#) – this is the classic reason. Most people will copy their boss to either show that they are working or share the burden of bad news. This move is typically used by junior staff for fear of responsibility. While CYA seems like an intellectual no-brainer, it can be a trap. The sender can appear insecure and open the door for others to communicate directly with her boss instead of her.
- To Intimidate – sometimes a person will CC: your boss to threaten you. Note this is often a result of you doing your job, so take heart. For example, your boss approved a new hire for your increased workload, but this requires a human resources rep to process the paperwork. The HR rep has consistently not replied to your emails, so you consistently and politely follow up. She may respond and CC: your boss to diminish your efforts and imply a superior relationship. This is not to say you can’t use this technique to your advantage one day.
- To Be Inclusive – This person just wants to keep as many people in the loop as possible. This is fair, but often not necessary. Chances are if someone needs to know, they will seek out someone who can explain it to them. And, frankly, you would rather that than having them misinterpret a random email update.
In reality, a CC: message comes through looking and feeling like all other emails so most people will give equal time to the message whether they are CC:’d or listed under the veritable To: line. And just being CC:’d will not deter someone from replying all to your message anyway. So this brings us full circle back to the main question, how to know when and who to copy?
The short answer is with caution:
When In Doubt, Abstain
Just claim ignorance and don’t copy anybody. Or a simple way to cover your bases is to ask your team lead or boss who should be copied. You will be surprised. This is actually a very thoughtful question that most people don’t ask. If they’re not available, I would refrain from guessing and add a simple line to the end of your message like “Please feel free to forward this to anybody you think should be in the loop.”
Include On A Need-to-know Basis
If the project affects somebody else’s department, I would copy them out of courtesy. If the email is not too long, I would even include a note about it along the lines of “Copying Kathy for the accounting point of view.” This helps transition the new person onto the email chain and does not endanger the team dynamic as long as the person is not anybody’s immediate boss or a senior executive.
Assume people will read into your email list (but hopefully they have better things to do). Use this to your advantage. Sometimes situations call for a gentle reminder that what you’re working on is a major concern of your bosses and their bosses. Nothing says this louder than copying these important stakeholders on your message, but use this sparingly. A typical side effect is that others may think you are being self-important. Remember the office is made up of humans. One way to soften this blow is to weave a compliment to the team somewhere in the message.
And if you’re already down this rabbit hole, you could also consider rearranging the emails in the CC: field from most to least senior by job title as my paranoid co-worker did. I suppose the psychology behind this is if the “important” name is listed first in the CC: field, then there is a higher chance the recipients might notice and get the subtle inference.
The other exception that proves the rule is distribution lists sent to over 25 people. There are diminishing returns to people getting left off or added to these lists because they are inherently so unwieldy. Don’t waste your energy overthinking them. I would add or remove people who ask, when they ask, without a sweat.
In the end, I also defer to Tom Robbins’ sage advice:
To be or not to be isn’t the question. The question is how to prolong being.
And thankfully that has nothing to do with who sees an email.