Beware the BCC
I’m not sure exactly when or why the blind carbon copy (BCC) was invented, but I have seen it misused, misunderstood, and misfired too many times to count. The BCC allows you to write an email TO some people and BCC others. The people you send it TO don’t know that others are secretly on the BCC line.
Most email problems with the BCC start when an email is written to a few people, but others are blind carbon copied.
DANGER: REPLY ALL
The first and most visible problem with the blind carbon copy is when someone who was BCC’d hits reply all. Now the people who were on the email (in the TO or CC lines) are alerted to the fact that they were not the only recipients. I’ve seen this backfire more times than I can tell you.
Unlike most email mistakes, this one is bigger than most people think. Why?
DANGER: REPUTATION RISK
It reduces trust.
It diminishes your brand.
It raises unnecessary questions.
It makes others question your motives.
Let me share a few examples.
- A few years ago, I received an email from a colleague. I was on the cc line with two other executives. The email was addressed to a single person on the TO line. Two hours after receiving the email, someone hit reply all and made a comment. Now I wondered why this person was blind carbon copied on the note. It made me question the motives of the sender. If someone has to pause and question your motives, that enough is reason to not use the BCC.
- A lawyer is BCC’d on a contractual question with a supplier and mistakenly hits reply all with a question. All of a sudden it escalates an issue to serious status when it may have been a minor disagreement. The recipient now believes that there is a major legal issue at stake. Instead of working through the issue, it was held up with that person’s legal counsel. The entire matter became embroiled in a legal dispute that was unnecessary. Yes, this happened.
- A salesperson sends an article out about an industry trend and BCC’s someone who works for a competitor. The person was an old friend, and the sales representative meant nothing by it. But now everyone wonders why you would send something to the competition. Yes, this happened.
DANGER: WASTED TIME
When I receive a blind carbon copy message, I am faced with a dilemma. Am I supposed to know what was in the email if I am questioned? Am I supposed to pretend I never received it?
I don’t like playing games. It wastes too much time.
I almost always reply to the sender with a note saying never to blind carbon copy me. Why am I writing this post? To save time. Now I can just point to the reasons without starting from scratch each time.
DANGER: MANIPULATION AHEAD
Here’s something else that the blind carbon copy does. It leaves the bcc people out of the follow-up conversation. If you are sent a note or copied on a note (not BCC’d) and reply, that email is not sent to anyone on the BCC line.
That’s why some people use it as a method of manipulation. It sends one perception out there. Let’s say—and this has happened—someone responds and corrects the email with facts that demonstrate that the person was wrong. Those on the BCC line never see it. And, since they aren’t supposed to know about it, they often never ask about the subject. They are left with a different impression.
Here’s my advice:
Play it straight. Send messages TO the appropriate people. CC (carbon copy) those who need to be aware of an issue.
Defenders of the BCC (blind carbon copy) will point to appropriate examples. For instance, they will say that they BCC the legal department or Human Resources about sensitive issues so that they can see the conversation.
Instead, go into your sent mail and just send the people a copy of the note with an explanation. “I am sending this to you for the legal record.” “I didn’t copy you because I didn’t want to escalate the issue at this time, but wanted you to see that there’s an issue we need to address.”
You don’t need more headaches from email. Just answering all of it creates enough stress.
There is one appropriate use of the BCC that I have seen used effectively. That is when you send a note to yourself and blind copy a long list of people. It allows you to send out the email to everyone at once. Someone also pointed out that it protects the list from people who would use the email list inappropriately. True enough.
Yes, there are tools that prevent some of these problems. They are supposed to prevent the reply all problem. Recently, I saw this play out. After I alerted the sender and questioned why someone was on the email, I received the explanation that Apple Mail wasn’t working properly (or something like that).
Don’t rely on your tools. Rely on best practice. Don’t use the BCC.