How to use BCC in email (and when you shouldn’t)

How to use BCC in email (and when you shouldn’t)

Few people today remember what BCC actually stands for, but many knowledge workers don’t know how to use BCC in email effectively, adding it more often than they should.

What is BCC?

BCC means “Blind Carbon Copy”. In the old days of typewriters and paper memos you made carbon copies (CC) by inserting carbon paper between the sheets; every recipient would get the same text, so they could all see who is on the distribution list. A “blind” copy was one whose recipient was not seen by the others, a feat accomplished by removing the carbon paper before adding this recipient. All email clients today replicate this functionality, and people use it to send out copies of messages to hidden recipients in a clandestine manner.

TO vs. CC vs. BCC

There is a lot written about the distinction between To and CC recipients; the general consensus is that “To” means you have an action item, and CC means you don’t – you’re getting the message as an FYI (the question of why we burden the CC people with non-actionable email makes good food for thought, by the way). Meanwhile, the subject of BCC gets less attention, and people use it as they please.

That is seldom a good idea.

Major problems with the use of BCC

  • With ubiquitous connectivity, blind messages can’t be relied on to remain discreet. If you blind copy Jack on a message to Jill because you really don’t want Jill to know you informed Jack, Murphy’s laws will kick into action, and before you know it the truth will come out. One way or another – an inadvertent comment in the cafeteria line, a forwarded copy of the message through a third party, whatever – Jill will find out, and you will end up embarrassed or worse. The more deserving of secrecy the message, the greater the damage when it comes out.
  • More generally, because blind copies are perceived as sneaky, the use of BCC runs contrary to the company culture of many organizations – those that actually mean the values on the posters that extoll openness, honesty and respect for people.

How to use BCC in email (if you cannot avoid it)

  • When you’re sending a blast email to a large distribution list, BCC is the only way to go. Otherwise, people will all be copied when some idiot hits Reply All instead of Replying to the sender. That leads to what is known as an Email Storm – many irate recipients will respond with a justified complaint, and enough of them will do it with Reply All again; like particles in a nuclear explosion, the angry responses multiply until they can actually bring the server down!
  • When you want to remove someone from future responses in a thread, judicious use of BCC can help. This is typically seen in introductions: if David sent an email introduction to you and Mary, a wise response would start “Thanks David (moved to BCC) and hello Mary”. Putting David on the BCC line will keep Mary’s further communication with you out of his inbox. In this case you used BCC but informed them both of the fact, so nothing sneaky is involved.

Of course, at the root of all these cases is the insight that you should think before you act – a wise strategy in general…especially with email communication.

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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