Guide to Enterprise IM Etiquette

By Bob Woods

It’s been said that in cyberspace, no one knows if you’re a dog. Yet people can act like dogs, when it comes to enterprise instant messaging (EIM).

Some users treat EIM communications – messages that should have a business-like tone – like a conversation in a bar or at a sports event. Others think EIM conversations should take on the appearance of short-message services (SMS) chats, where fully spelled-out words are dumped in favor of abbreviations and letter combinations that look like something out of a teenager’s notebook.

With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide for proper etiquette when using IM in a corporate/enterprise situation. We won’t bore you with a Miss Manners-style column that starts out with “Gentle reader” and then goes on to list items that at times sound like they’re straight out of the 19th Century. Instead, these recommendations are designed specifically for today’s business world, where electronic communication is king.

Conversation Content
This one seems to be pretty obvious, but since this is intended to be a comprehensive guide, we’ll address it.

As with e-mail, think about what you type into that conversation window. If you’re the type who immediately regrets what you’ve written after you hit the “send” button, be forewarned – not thinking about what you’re typing can quickly change a friendly IM conversation into a full-fledged argument. And when you’re not face-to-face and not seeing how the other person is reacting, its easy to have an argument escalate into a full-fledged word war. So no matter how a conversation is going, try your best to keep a cool head when IMing. And think, think, think about what you’re typing before you actually enter it into the IM window.


Start each request with a polite question such as “Got a sec for a phone call?” “Do you have time for a text chat question?” or “If you have a few minutes, can I stop at your cube?” Do not just start typing your question. If you see that the person is inactive, you should formulate your question to be brief. Remember that if the application is terminated your question can go away so if you are concerned, use e-mail for the detailed question and just send an IM “Post-It” that asks them to read your e-mail question. Also a person may want to keep a record of a complex question or forward it on so still e-mail for more formal/detailed questions.

Before sending an IM, the user should be conscious that the recipient might not be alone, might be projecting their PC for a presentation and that the eyes seeing the IM could be literally gobs and gobs of people. In that vein, any presenter should turn off IM before casting their PC display for all to see (it’s easy to forget to do this). And anyone using Netmeeting or other share program where their entire PC is shared needs to turn off chat temporarily.

Use emoticons when you sense the opportunity for misunderstanding. A smiley face can go a long way in letting someone know your comment should be taken as a friendly one, especially if it may look to be unfriendly without one.

On the flip side of that one…

Excessive abbreviations, emoticons, and the like should be used with restraint, or not at all. Enterprise IM communications are still business communications, and should be treated with the same amount of decorum as a written letter. People will say things in via IM they would never say via a written letter or in a telephone conversation. This is particular true for younger employees who may be used to IM more as a means of socialization than as a business tool.

Multi-User Conversations
Avoid non-business related multi-user conversations. People who aren’t invited may feel “out of the loop” if all of their co-workers are giggling about a private IM conversation. Most people would think twice about standing around in a circle whispering jokes to each other on company time — they should think twice about using IM for this purpose as well.

Don’t invite someone to join a conference in progress without asking the other folks already there. The newly invited may see (hear) comments not intended for them.

The Actual Act of Messaging
If you’ve ever been in an AOL chat room, you’ve probably seen all kinds of examples of “Chatters Behaving Badly.” People typing in ALL CAPS, changing font styles and sizes, using different colors, and so on. A basic guideline here is don’t do anything that would get users in an AOL chat room ticked off at you. Many would say the bar is pretty low by that standard. So let’s raise it. Type normally, and in full sentences, when you’re in an EIM conversation. After all, this isn’t SMS. You wouldn’t put a phrase like “c ya l8ter” in a business letter, right?


It’s hard to know when an IM is over. Back and forth “see ya’s” and “bye’s” often take place. Good etiquette might be that the first person to indicate it’s over is enough.

Direct the chat to e-mail (or even to the phone) if it appears to be a substantial issue that needs to be documented or intended for multiple recipients.

When Available Really Means Busy, and Other IM Client Setting Details
Remember when IMing that just because someone is online doesn’t mean they have the time to talk to you. Nothing is more annoying than being on a conference call or finishing something up for deadline and having the same person IM you repeatedly, asking why you are not responding. Especially on a client call, when the person on the other line is perfectly able to hear the repeated message ding, or the sound of your typing a response.

One of the most important lessons that I have learned from using instant messaging every day at work is that sometimes it is perfectly acceptable not to use IM. By changing my Lotus Sametime status from available to “Do Not Disturb,” my colleagues know that I am busy working, and they should contact me later. For the same reasons that I do not answer my phone 100 percent of the time, it is important that I am able to control who can IM me and when.

Set the timeout below 5 minutes. More than that is not a good “available” indicator. Set your location status with as much information as possible to assist people in contacting you the way that you want to be contacted, like cell phone, pager number, cube number, and so on.

Set the preferences on your PC to have a gentle, not-so-intrusive sound accompany an incoming IM. In an office where people have a sound for incoming e-mail and a sound for incoming IMs makes for a cacaphony. Perhaps turning off the incoming e-mail audio chime is a good option.

Public IM Usage
If your IM system is interoperable with the public IM networks (AOL’s AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger or Yahoo Messenger), keep conversations with family and friends to a minimum. Remember: You’re on company time, even when you’re IMing with your significant other about picking up milk and flour on the way home.

Also keep in mind that more and more enterprise IM-strength systems have auditing and logging capabilities. So keep that in mind if you have long, winding conversations with friends or siblings. Plus (just like with phone calls), it’s generally legal for your employer to “listen in” on your IM conversations – after all, you are on your employer’s time if you’re at work.


Don’t SPIM – don’t use IM as spam. Setting up a ‘bot-based or alert-based service that pushes information is fine. But it is evil to pounce on the unsuspecting and put the hard sell on them.

Above all, “Treat each communication you have, regardless of whether it is with a co-worker or a customer, as if it were going to be printed in the New York Times.” Amen.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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