I recently wrote a guide on using CC in email, including what it is, how to use it, and the proper etiquette for using it. As a follow-up, in this article I’ll do a deep dive on BCC for email, the close cousin of CC.
Frequently mistaken for each other, CC and BCC functions are two entirely different features, and it’s important to understand the differences. So what is BCC in email, how is it different from CC, and when should you use it?
BCC vs CC
We’ll start with a refresher on CC. CC is the “carbon copy” function found in every standard email platform, including Gmail, and it’s used to send a copy of the email to someone other than the primary recipients in the “To” field.
CC is usually used when you want to bring someone in the loop without expecting a response from them, or when you want to introduce new people.
What Does BCC Mean?
BCC means “blind carbon copy,” and it shares some commonalities with CC. If you include a person’s email address in the BCC field, they’ll receive a copy of the email in their inbox as if they were CC’d.
The difference is, their email address won’t be displayed to the other people on the email chain; and as a result of this, they won’t receive subsequent Reply or Reply All messages from other people in the thread. Note that BCC recipients cannot see each other either. Think of it as a stealth mode CC.
Accessing BCC in Email
If you’re using Gmail, BCC is easy to find. To the right of the “To” line of an email draft, you’ll find options for CC and BCC. Click either one (or both) to bring up new lines, and include email addresses as relevant there before sending your email.
If you’re using Outlook, CC will be available by default, and you’ll have to click BCC (to the right of the To field) to add a line for it.
When to Use BCC Instead of To or CC
The To field is for all your primary recipients; these are the people for whom the message was originally intended, and you’ll likely expect a response from this group.
The CC field is for all the people who should see the message, and whose email addresses can and should be seen by the group; it’s also helpful if you want these people to get future Reply All messages to this email thread.
So why would you use BCC instead of either of these fields?
There are a few situations that might call for it:
- Mass messaging. Let’s say you’re sending an email to a large group of people, all at once, like an invitation to an event. These people may or may not know each other, and you certainly don’t want these recipients to mindlessly hit Reply All and send a notification to dozens of individuals on the list. Using BCC not only protects the privacy of your guests, but also prevents any Reply All-related mishaps.
- Maintaining privacy. BCC could also be useful for copying someone if you want to maintain their privacy. For example, let’s say you’re networking and you’d like your boss to see your initial message. However, you don’t want this new contact to have your boss’s contact information. BCCing your boss will keep them in the loop without accidentally revealing their information to the new person.
- Sparing someone from a lengthy thread. Because BCC protects a person from the threat of future Reply All messages, it’s a great way to keep someone copied while sparing them the confusion and annoyance of further responses. If you’re introducing a conversational topic and you want someone to know that the conversation has begun—but you don’t want them wrapped up in the thread that’s about to follow—consider BCCing them.
Inappropriate Uses for BCC
That said, BCC can be misused in a number of ways. If you think about it, the BCC field is inherently dishonest; you’re letting people see a message without other people knowing about it. It’s almost like letting someone listen into a speakerphone call without letting the other person know about it.
Accordingly, there are many examples of misusing the BCC feature:
- Copying up. Copying up is a problem with CC, and it’s an even bigger problem when you use BCC. It’s simply unprofessional. The basic idea is including someone’s boss or supervisor in the CC field as a way to make them look bad. For example, you might point out a mistake they made or a professional fault of theirs so their boss will reprimand them. BCCing doesn’t make this any better; you’re still being petty, and the boss will still see you as spiteful. Again, if there’s a big enough issue that you need someone higher up to get involved, contact them directly and be straightforward and polite about it.
- Including an inappropriate eavesdropper. It’s also a bad idea to use BCC as a way to clue someone into something they have no business seeing. An egregious example of this would be copying someone outside the company on a professional matter relevant to the company, to give them insider information. But a softer example would be BCCing a friend on a reference letter you’ve written to their prospective employer. This is both unprofessional and risky; remember, even though the BCC’d person won’t receive replies, they can still Reply All to the thread. If they do, their email address will be revealed, and the original recipient will see that you BCC’d this person initially. It’s an awkward mess that nobody wants to deal with, so consider avoiding it altogether.
- Operating without transparency. BCC is also a problem if you’re using it to circumvent the norms of transparency. If you’re being disingenuous, or if you’re intentionally hiding your professional practices, BCCing people to further your deceit is a way of worsening your ethical breach.
Ask yourself why you’re trying to hide someone’s information. Is this merely to protect the person you’re BCCing? Or are you trying to get away with something deceitful? Be honest, and try not to use the BCC field for sneaky, fraudulent, or insincere purposes.
Mitigating Risk With BCC
If you absolutely must share a message with someone, you can mitigate the risks you face by including them in the To or CC field by, instead, simply forwarding them a copy of the message later. That way, they can’t accidentally Reply All to the message. It still resides in some ethically ambiguous territory, but it should at least protect you from the potential awkwardness of an errant Reply All.
Overall, BCC isn’t a super great or useful feature, and there are more ways to misuse it than to use it appropriately and productively. If you must use BCC in email, use it with caution, and make sure you’re implementing it with respect to all parties involved.
If you’re interested in learning more about your own email habits, or improving your email productivity, you’ll need more than better etiquette standards to do it. You need a tool like EmailAnalytics, which is designed to help you understand your email patterns, including the number of emails you send per day, your average response times, and the average length of your email threads. Sign up for a free trial today, and start learning how you can improve!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.