Ever found yourself staring at the blinking cursor on your screen, wondering how to express your thoughts in a business email? It’s more than a matter of whether that emoji or "LOL" belongs there. In the digital age, we’re moving faster than we should, so it’s not only easy to cross the line between formal and informal communication but also to get yourself in legal trouble.
When it comes to business emails, slow down. Precision, professionalism, and clarity are key factors in the writing process. But what’s even more critical is how you’re communicating. Are you doing so in a helpful way? Or are you making your point in a harmful or potentially unlawful way? What you write can mean the difference between a miscommunication that leads to a lawsuit — or a communication that advances you and your career.
To: Eddie V
Hey! 👋 So, about tomorrow's thing - you're coming, right? I think we scheduled for like 3, but not sure. Also, can you bring those reports? 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼 (Also hoping your hot intern shows up - I know you can’t stop thinking about her working “under you” and I can totally see why!)
To: Eddie V.
Subject: Confirmation for Tomorrow's 3 PM Strategy Meeting
I hope this email finds you well. I'd like to confirm your attendance for tomorrow's strategy meeting at 3 p.m. Please also bring the Q2 financial reports with you.
Thank you. I look forward to our discussion.
The first example is too informal for a work setting. It’s also inappropriate and potentially discriminatory because of the innuendo, which could be considered sexual harassment. It’s just the type of email that can land you in hot water. The second is clear, concise, and professional. It specifies the purpose of the meeting in the subject line, uses a more formal greeting, and makes concrete requests. Master the following five tips for better business emails to put your best foot forward each time.
1. The Tone Trap and Lawless Language
Go too casual, and you’ll appear unprofessional or insincere. A salutation like "Hey there!" might work for a friend, but comes across as dismissive or overly familiar in a business context. On the other hand, an overly formal tone can sound robotic or inauthentic.
Be respectful. It’s illegal under federal law for employers to discriminate against applicants or employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, nation of origin, religion, age (40 and older), disability, and genetic information. It’s also illegal to harass someone in those protected classes. The harasser can be a supervisor, employee, client, or customer. Flippant comments and tasteless jokes can be career-ending.
2. Punctuation and Grammar
Imagine receiving an email stating: "Your invited to our business meeting next week." That misplaced "your" (it should be “you’re,” a contraction of “you are”) is an immediate flag: It creates doubt about the sender's attention to detail. Proper punctuation and grammar aren’t just academic concerns — they lend credibility to your message. Before hitting send, read the email aloud to catch any awkward phrasing or errors. If you’re not sure, plug your email into a spell-check program. The time spent will pay dividends.
3. The Gendered or Diminishing Language Pitfall
Using gendered language like "Dear Sirs" is outdated and stuffy, and can alienate potential clients or colleagues who don't identify as male. Always use the name of the person to whom you’re writing. If you can’t determine who that is, try the following: Dear Finance Team (name of department or team); Dear ExxonMobil (company name); Dear Hiring Manager (if you know the title but not the name); or Greetings, which is neutral and widely acceptable.
Using diminutive phrases such as "Just wanted to check in..." or "I’m no expert, but..." can undermine your authority. Try “Touching base on …” rather than “Just wanted to touch base.” Instead of “I’m no expert, but …”, try “From my perspective…” which comes across as confident and considerate. It allows you to share your knowledge without diminishing your credibility.
Apologies are widely overused and undercut your authority. “Sorry I’m so late in getting back to you” is an example of over-apologizing. Ask yourself whether an apology is warranted. A simple “I’m following up with that report you requested” is a more authoritative response. If you’ve erred, admit fault and take responsibility for your actions. “I’m sorry that we made a mistake in the billing cycle and overcharged your firm; we’re taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again” is an apology truly warranted and delivered with sincerity.
4. The Information Overload
Be concise and to the point. Refrain from burying your main message in a sea of text. The person on the other end is probably as busy as you are. Respect their time.
5. The Missing Call to Action
If you're writing to get a particular response or action, an open-ended request such as "Let me know what you think” is ambiguous, lacks urgency, and may lead to inaction on the part of the recipient because there’s no timeline attached. Give a deadline, so that both sender and recipient have a clear-cut date to work towards. More effective: "Could you provide feedback on the proposed strategy by Friday, Dec. 2? Your perspective will help us complete our presentation for the client."
The bottom line: The way you communicate matters. Using language that connects people in positive ways is an opportunity to showcase your professionalism, attention to detail, and consideration for the recipient. The advent of remote work has made In-person interaction less frequent, so your written communication may very well be the primary way you’re judged by others these days.
The occasional slip-up in a business email can be forgiven. However, consistent mistakes or thoughtless comments that veer into discriminatory territory can have lasting effects on your professional image and career. So, the next time the cursor blinks at you, take a moment to review, refine, and ensure that your email is as polished and respectful as possible. Excellence in communication is the hallmark of a true professional.
Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director and AI editor at Alphy.
Reflect AI by Alphy is a SaaS platform that flags harmful, helpful, and unlawful language in email and video meetings. Our proprietary AI language classifier detects risks in emails prior to send, flags conversational missteps and successes in video meetings in real time, and upskills individual communication with targeted and personalized microlearning.