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Internal Communications Resources: Email Norms and Guidelines


The MIT Libraries Email Norms & Guidelines were updated as of March 2023. The Internal Communications Working Group undertook this latest revision, building on the original work done by the Communication and Collaboration project in 2017-2018. The Libraries will continue to review this guide as library tools and practices for communication and collaboration evolve.

These are general guidelines to help simplify communication within the Libraries. People should clarify individual expectations with their managers and teams.

1. When to use email

  • Is email the best method to communicate? Consider:
    • What is the purpose of this message?
    • What would you like recipients to know or to do as a result?

  • Emails can be used
    • To provide instructional, important and timely information. 
    • To share detailed information and data
    • To help ensure a record of your communication and log decision-making 
    • To direct the recipient to a source of information via link or attachment
    • To provide status updates
  • Emails do not always require an immediate response
    • Tools like Slack may be more effective for quick questions
  • If you are gathering information, consider whether an email thread will be the best tool. A quick doodle poll, Google form, or something else may be better.
  • When not to use email
    • Sharing high-risk confidential information
    • Emotionally charged conversations
    • Discussing or raising new performance issues that haven’t been previously addressed.
      • Any questions regarding performance communications can be directed to HR
  • If an email is detailing information longer than one page or requires back-and-forth communication, consider linking the information somewhere else or moving the conversation to a Zoom meeting

2. Email vs. in-person communication

  • There are differences between written and in-person communication.
    • In-person communication here can also refer to a Zoom meeting.
  • Much of in-person communication is through body language and tone of voice.
  • Body language does not happen in email, so we must make extra efforts with our voice and tone to convey the desired characteristics.
  • Therefore –
    • Hard conversations are best in person.
    • Communications that can easily be confused or misinterpreted are best face-to-face or via Zoom or phone call.
    • Make sure everyone who needs to know important information is available by whichever medium is chosen (i.e. don’t make an important announcement at an in-person meeting if not everyone can attend).

3. Email etiquette

Please see the Sample Good Email document for a quick-tip guide for the below. 

  • Email should be checked on days you are working
    • Staff should try to check email multiple times a day
    • Consider an auto-response for days when you have focused work time to let people know you will respond to non-urgent matters at a later time
  • Include a clear, direct subject line.
    • People search for emails by subject lines; make yours searchable and findable. 
    • Consider including a deadline in the subject line: REVIEW BY 1/31/23
    • Consider stating the purpose of the email in the subject line: Info, Action Required, Respond by, etc.
  • Your subject line should match the message.
    • Change the subject line when the core purpose of the thread changes.
  • Send or copy others thoughtfully.
    • Ask yourself if all the recipients need the information in your message.
  • Use caution with “reply all”
    • Do not hit “reply all” unless everyone really needs to know.
  • Add the email address last.
    • This avoids accidentally sending messages before you have finished writing or proofreading.
  • Attachments
    • Think about whether you need to include an attachment, or if you can direct people to a folder on Dropbox, the Wiki, etc.
    • Make sure the details of the attachment are meaningful – what is it, is it a draft/final/for review, etc.
    • If you are replying to the same person(s) that received the original message, there is no need to include the attachment unless a change has been made to the original document.
    • If the document is meant to be collaborative, consider sharing via Google Docs
    • Include TL;DR (“too long; didn’t read”) for longer messages
    • If your message is overly long, try to include a brief synopsis at the top.
    • If the information is important, it should be stored in a document and the link should be shared with the email synopsis. 
  • Know your audience
    • Greetings, tone, and salutations should match the audience, familiarity, etc. When in doubt, keep it neutral.
    • Do the recipients of the email know you? If not, include a signature file.
    • Be aware that people from different cultures can speak and write differently. Miscommunication can easily occur because of cultural differences, especially in the written form when we cannot see one another's body language.
    • Avoid jargon and spell out acronyms unless you are certain that those you are emailing know it.
  • Nothing is confidential — so write accordingly
    • A basic guideline is to assume that others will see what you write.
    • HR requests should be routed through HR forms
    • When in doubt, email and the HR team can guide you accordingly
    • If sending confidential information, be sure to include CONFIDENTIAL in the subject line and provide additional information in the body of the email regarding sharing.
    • If you must share confidential information via email, password protect any documents and share the passwords separately
      • If in doubt, reach out to HR for guidance
  • Keep it short (when possible) and get to the point 
    • State the purpose of the email within the first two sentences.
    • Write concisely, with lots of white space. Feel free to use bullet points.
    • Include links to refer to further documentation
    • Call out action items and put them at the top of the email - try not to bury them.
  • If you expect a message to be forwarded to others, state this expectation explicitly. (e.g., “Department heads need to share with their staff.”)
    • Clearly indicate expectations for responsiveness
    • Tell people clearly who needs to respond and what date you need a response by
    • Conversely, indicate if no response or action is needed.
  • Proofread every message 
    • Check use of humor, voice and tone, spelling, etc.
    • Make sure to insert attachments or links, when applicable

4. Responding to an email

  • Respond to others in a timely fashion
    • Expectations for response time may differ across directorates, departments or groups. Follow the appropriate norms of your area. If your area has no stated expectations for responses to staff communications, discuss with your team, and see examples below. Managers should make expectations clear to new staff during onboarding.
    • Respond to urgent emails (if labeled as ‘urgent’) within 1 business day
      • Set up an auto-responder if you are going to be out, letting people know when you’ll be back and who they should contact in your absence.
      • Respond to most emails within 1-2 business days, or by any deadline requested by the sender.
        • If you cannot answer immediately, send an acknowledgement of the communication, then follow up with a full response when possible. 
  • Staff are not expected to respond to email outside of their working hours
    • Consider using scheduled send when emailing outside of typical business hours
  • Forward emails as needed
    • When forwarding an email to others – give context to clarify why the information may be relevant and what, if anything, is expected

5. Using Moira Lists

  • Everyone in the Libraries has access to use Moira lists for email communications
  • The All-Lib Moira list should be used sparingly for notifications that need to inform the staff of an important update or announcement
    • Good for: staff changes (hiring and leaving), committee announcements, closures, staff events, system outages or facilities issues
    • Not for: non-work related messaging, messages meant for a small percentage of Libraries staff.

6. Getting help & related info