Let's say you get a mass-email from your boss containing some organizational information. You have a question, so you send a reply to your boss (not everyone) asking for clarification.

When your boss receives this, the "technical" default behavior of any e-mail client in the world would be to only send the response to the person who sent the e-mail. However, for obvious reasons, your boss may want to include everyone that got the original mass-email, in case someone else has the same question.

Now, for the question of etiquette:

Should your boss:

  1. Reply to the e-mail, then add everyone back to the conversation, and reply?
  2. Reply to the original sent e-mail, writing a more general addition with the answer contained?

I am a strong believer that #1 is very bad form, as it leaks an e-mail thread (your question) that you don't have consent to spread on. In most cases it's probably harmless, but it irks me nonetheless.

There are of course way worse examples of "e-mail thread leakage", but this one seems pretty straight forward, and is clearly well meant.

  • But, you can't change your boss, no matter whether you think the behavior is rude or not. You need a question that we can answer - a solution that you can effect. Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 15:31
  • I am asking whether #1 is reason to ask the boss to change their behavior. What do you mean I "can't change my boss"? My boss is not a force of nature. I can bring up the issue and they may agree.
    – user91919
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 15:31
  • 7
    @user91919 So are you asking which is proper etiquette, or are you asking how to tell your boss that they are not using proper email etiquette? The two questions are very different. Your post reads like the former, but your comments indicate that you really are asking the latter. You should edit your question to reflect what you really want to ask.
    – David K
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 15:56
  • Could you clarify if the information in the reply would reasonably be considered sensitive or personal? Did you indicate in the reply that you think it should not be shared?
    – chadnt
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:57

5 Answers 5


People forward emails, and add others to email chains all the time. When they do, they make an assessment about whether the new people have a need for the information (the sender has already decided they do), and whether there's anything sensitive that shouldn't be passed on. They may do this badly or may disagree with your assessment.

There are also many reasons why a sender might trim the audience of a followup email: the topic has changed and some people aren't relevant anymore, or wanting to save other people's time, or to discuss something sensitive.

Your situation is that you trimmed the list to discuss something sensitive. Your boss didn't agree that your question was sensitive, and felt that the entire group needed the information. Heck, he can take any email you send him and forward it to his bosses, or your coworkers, or anyone he thinks would benefit from seeing it, and doesn't need your consent.

The simple answer is, no, there is no blanket etiquette for this situation, because there are many reasons why it might happen. If you thought your boss should have kept your question private, you should request as much. He may still disagree, so if a topic is truly sensitive, and especially if the recipient may not understand or agree, don't put it in email at all. Also don't try to make this your boss's problem by establishing some rules for what is forwardable and what is not, because it won't work. Please internalize: Emails can be and will be forwarded.

  • 1
    Yes. Always assume that email might get forwarded, especially when it is a reply. If you need to communicate just to your boss, and don't want it forwarded to the group, use an out-of-band method, and/or FYEO (for your eyes only).
    – MikeP
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 16:13
  • 3
    There's a pithy phrase I remember for office communications: "Say it, forget it; write it, regret it." I don't write down anything I don't want used against me, even if my intentions are good (which they usually are). If I need to share sensitive information in a traceable way, I put a disclaimer on the document/email that it is to be treated as personal information per company policy and distributed only as necessary. That gives me recourse if they violate my trust.
    – Bloodgain
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 23:03

I think you should consider if this is really a battle that's worth fighting. If your boss had leaked some personal information about you, then sure, that's a big thing. If it's just an e-mail which you wrote which didn't contain anything special, then don't make a mountain out of a molehill. Don't use up your credit with your boss over little things.

As an aside:

as it leaks an e-mail thread (your question) that you don't have consent to spread on

Not sure about that. Every e-mail you and your boss send on work time belong to the company, not to you.

  • Firstly, it's not so much a "battle" as a question of form. I don't consider it an insult if someone tells me that something I do is risky (this habit is risky), or is considered bad form (if it is, which is why I'm asking). Secondly, the idea that anything in my e-mails should belong to the company is absurd (my social security number does not belong to the company if I e-mail it), but again, this is not a question of legality but a question of etiquette, which is by it's very nature subjective.
    – user91919
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 15:39

I think you answered yourself.

The second form is probably the most appropiated one. It is also more time consuming, as the boss has to rephrase your question and answer it, rather than just the second. That's probably the reason they may do it sometimes.

As far as the mail did not contain any personal/relevant information, I would not consider it a big deal, to be honest, even from the etiquette point of view.

  • 2
    I always try to write any such email under the expectation that it will more than likely end up shared back out to the wider group. That way you're mindful of what you say - if you want it to be a private matter, speak to them in person or send a distinct email that's not part of the chain and make it clear you consider this a private correspondence.
    – delinear
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 16:23

If your boss wants to include everyone on this email stream, then it's because he/she wants to. Being a business-related email, there's usually no reason for any of that information to be confidential to only a subset of employees. If there is any confidential information, the boss should know and edit as apporiate.

In terms of looping in the new person, the boss would "Reply All" to the latest email that has everyone on it, and then add the new person to the CC (or To) list as appropriate, and then copy in the missing email content from the most recent exchange that the group isn't aware of.

  • "In terms of looping in the new person, the boss would "Reply All" to the latest email that has everyone on it" -- this is exactly my point, you don't "break rank" by adding people to an e-mail thread without consent, you send replies in that same thread and add information as needed. In this case it was harmless, but in many cases you could be sending on all kinds of information unawares, maybe even to external recipients.
    – user91919
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 15:46
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    But it's your boss adding the new person. They're the boss, so consent shouldn't really be a problem.
    – user44108
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 15:53

Like you mentionned already, the second option would be the most formal, and it makes sure that your privacy is respected.

However, depending on how busy the person responding is and the workplace mentality regarding questions (I personally love when people ask questions instead of not knowing, it means they care!) someone might simply to everyone involved, ideally with something showing that it is a good question.

Not related to the question, but I think it is worth a mention... Depending on the workplace and its politics, sometimes emails can get forwarded around. I personally like to write my emails so that I wouldnt be ashamed if the CEO was to read them... For other things, I.M. or in person are always good ways to get short answers to something you may not want a trace of.

  • 1
    I don't know of an IM client within the last three decades that doesn't allow logging. (I don't remember a logging option for VAX talk or whatever it was called.) Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 7:33
  • Well yeah, if you confess to a murder to someone, dont do it on I.M., I'm just saying that I.M. are typically more personnal than email, less formal. In my opinion, forwarding an I.M. would be more obvious to the person you are sending it to that you are trying to show someone else messed up or something... but yeah, if you want absolutely no trace of your text, dont use IM ...
    – Raphaël
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 16:48

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