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E-mail ‘To’ field can be a minefield

“Have I got a story for you,” an intern at The Emily Post Institute exclaimed. We had just been discussing how e-mails end up going to the wrong person. It turns out the “To” field is a minefield if you aren’t careful.

The intern had a friend, Kate, who recently got a job as an administrative assistant in a human resources department. Part of her boss’s job was attending local Chamber of Commerce business mixers. One of Kate’s friends, Joe, went to the mixer and met her boss. Conversation turned to job opportunities, and the boss suggested that he set up an appointment to continue the discussion.


Joe wanted to get the lay of the land at the company, so he wrote Kate an e-mail asking for her assessment of the place so he could be prepared for his meeting. Kate replied that the company was great, but her boss was full of himself and definitely had issues.

Kate made two mistakes. First was saying anything disparaging about her boss in an e-mail. E-mails are public documents. Don’t write or say anything in an e-mail that you can’t put on a bulletin board.

She made mistake number two when she entered Joe’s name in the “To” field. Autofill took over after she typed “J” and then “o.” Too bad her boss’s name also was “Joe.” Instead of her friend’s e-mail address, her boss’s appeared in the “To” filed. Oblivious to the mistake, she sent the e-mail. She was fired that day.

E-mail is a powerful communications tool. But its benefits are balanced by problems. Sure we can do more in less time, but that leads to stress, which is a real issue in the workplace. Consequently, we don’t take the time to proofread and review e-mails. And mistakes slip by us.


One of the most diabolical buttons is the “Send” button: Once you hit it, the e-mail is gone. (I know, some systems let you recall an e-mail. But that doesn’t help with anyone who has already seen it before you recall it.)

Take a moment or two, or even a few extra minutes, and review your e-mails before sending. Check the body copy for sure, but also carefully examine the “To” and “Subject ” fields. Had our intern’s friend taken the time to review her e-mail, she might still have her job today.

E-mail questions about business etiquette to etiquetteatwork@emilypost.com.