Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

To BCC or not to BCC, that is the question

Awhile back, I did a post on the importance of setting context in emails because your body language and facial expressions aren't there to help deliver subtleties in your message. In an email response to that one, somebody asked me about when to CC vs BCC vs something else. For the longest time, I couldn't get my head around how I felt about that until I was the recipient of a BCC last week.

I received this message with no prior warning about what its contents might be and in the middle of a longer thread it was a part of. Since the message was a reply to someone other than me, there was no context to why I was receiving this information or what I was supposed to do with it. The whole thing left me confused about something I didn't previously know I had to spend time on, but now felt compelled to follow up separately. Instead of enlightening me, it gave me something else to put on my "to do" list.

I use CC whenever I want somebody to know something is going on but they aren't directly involved in a particular issue. My boss is probably sick of me doing this as she gets CC'd most often by me. The theory there is that it's better to over communicate than under communicate. You never know for sure who will find what useful and it would be a shame to burn bridges with someone based on not including them. There's also nothing quite like applying subtle pressure to someone by CC'ing their boss on that second or third request for something.

BCC is a different animal altogether, though. The general intent there is that you want somebody to receive the message that you don't want others to know is receiving it. It's secret agent stuff. There's a couple problems with that, though:

  1. Multiple contexts in one message -The intended audience typically has a certain understanding of the issues being discussed in the messages that perhaps the person you are trying to secretly copy (usually a manager of some type) does not. That sets up a scenario where you have to write your message in way that sets the scene for both audiences without making your secrecy obvious. It's hard enough to be articulate for one group, let alone a second invisible one.
  2. Further replies on the thread -If you feel compelled to BCC someone on a message, the topic will likely generate replies and create an email thread. But, the person you've sent the message to behind closed doors won't see those responses, which might be important to whatever the issue is about..
So what do you do instead?

Well, my general rule for BCC is not to use it at all. Instead, make a choice to either include the previously secret person in the email conversation or don't. They're in or they're out, make a choice. Using BCC puts them in this weird middle state where they know communication is going on, but they aren't really a part of it.

If you choose not to include the person, forward the reply to the secret party after the original was sent to the main audience with an explanation of why you want them to know what is going on but keep their involvement out of the main thread. That way, you set context with the person in the shadows who is now not confused as to why they are receiving something. Then, offer to get them in as a CC on the main thread if they are interested. That promotes inclusion and gives this other person options.

If you choose to include the person, it is a good idea to send the context setting email before doing so, again to avoid confusion.

About the only time I think BCC is appropriate is if you are sending out some massive distribution . That way, there isn't some huge, intimidating To list for someone to scroll past before they read your message. That's using that facility in a little different way, though, since such messages tend to not foster interaction but instead are more like announcements. For interactive communication, make that choice to include the new person or leave them alone instead of keeping them guessing about why they are secretly receiving email.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 12:40 AM   6 comments


At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Scott Sehlhorst said...

Great advice about FWD vs BCC. That's what I've been doing for years.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Tac said...

BCC is also very dangerous as I've seen where a person was BCC'd, got the message on his mobile and replied all to add his two cents not realizing he was BCC'd.
The original email recipient did not realize anyone else was involved on the sensitive communication and it became the "last straw" and the person quit the next day.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger Mike Kretzler said...

I simplify my approach to solve the multiple contexts problem -- I write to the audience in the TO field. CC's and BCC's (which I rarely use) are on their own.

One audience, listed in the TO field, with lurkers in the CC.

At 11:41 PM, Blogger Pete Johnson said...

Thanks for the thoughts Scott, Tac, and Mike. Good ideas all.


At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally dislike the "applying subtle pressure to someone by CC'ing their boss". It feels rather childish, like telling tales. Much better to solve the issue person-to-person.

At 6:23 PM, Blogger Pete Johnson said...

@ anon - Yeah, I hate to resort to the CC the boss thing, but if you can't get them to pick up their phone either and they are located half the world away, there are few tactics that remain. I agree it feels childish. Unfortunately it is sometimes necessary.


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