The power of e-mail is considerable. You can send electronic sales letters across time zones with one click of the keyboard. You can respond to a prospect’s inquiry or a customer’s request in a matter of seconds.

And you can do it all from the comfort of home, office or the convenience of your car.

With all that power comes risk and responsibility, cautions author and e-mail policy expert Nancy Flynn. “Every electronic letter you send reflects upon your credibility and professionalism. E-mail that is poorly constructed and riddled with mechanical errors can turn off customers and sink careers. Incorrectly addressed messages can compromise confidences, create hard feelings, and cause embarrassment. Menacing, harassing, pornographic, or otherwise offensive e-mail can land you in court,” said Flynn, author of The ePolicy Handbook and Writing Effective E-Mail, and executive director of The ePolicy Institute, www.epolicyinstitute.com.

For e-mail users eager to reduce electronic risks and boost writing power, adherence to the basic rules of netiquette, or e-mail etiquette, can alleviate problems while casting your organization in a favorable light. The ePolicy Institute offers 15 tips to enhance electronic people skills.

1. Beware Hidden Readers. If confidentiality is an issue, don’t use e-mail. It’s not secure. You may intend to communicate with a single reader, but an inaccurate keystroke or the recipient’s decision to forward your message could land your e-mail message on hundreds of screens.

2. Write As Though Mom Were Reading. People treat e-mail too casually, sending messages they would never write on paper. Don’t write anything you would not be comfortable saying in an elevator crowded with colleagues, customers, and competitors. If you are

upset or angry, compose yourself before composing your message. Once you click “send,” your e-mail is on its way through cyberspace and probably can’t be retrieved.

3. Forget the Jokes. Hundreds of sexual harassment and racial discrimination lawsuits have resulted from improper e-mail messages that were intended as private jokes. There is no guarantee of privacy in cyberspace. Jokes, which too often are off-color or otherwise inappropriate, have no place in e-mail.

4. Remain Gender Neutral. Avoid sexist language that could offend, irritate, or rankle others. Your intended reader may be male, but the ultimate decision-maker could be the female executive who receives a forwarded copy of your message. A message loaded with masculine pronouns (he, his, him) could damage a business relationship.

5. Copy with Care. Sending carbon copies (Cc) and blind carbon copies (Bcc) to people who don’t need to read your message wastes everyone’s time. Carbon copy recipients are not required to reply, so don’t get angry when a response is not forthcoming. Blind carbon copies pose an additional challenge. If you inadvertently click Cc when you should have hit the Bcc key, you risk exposing yourself to complaints and possible lawsuits. Not only will readers be annoyed when they have to scroll through your Cc list (which could number in the hundreds or more), but the wholesale distribution of e-mail addresses could trigger a lawsuit on the grounds that confidentiality was breached or privacy violated.

6. Ask Permission to Forward Messages. Forwarding e-mail without asking permission could land you in legal trouble. Think before forwarding copyright-protected material or confidential data earmarked for your eyes only.

7. Respect Others’ Time. An in-box stuffed with jokes, health warnings, advertisements, and recipes is a real annoyance. Develop a reputation for sending spam, the electronic equivalent of junk mail, and readers will think twice before opening your messages. If you live in a state with anti-spam legislation on the books, spamming could net you a fine or jail time.

8. Don’t Oversell Your Message. Just because you have the ability to mark messages “urgent,” doesn’t mean you should. Do it too often and you may develop a reputation as a writer who cries wolf.

9. Inquire About Attachments. Some organizations prohibit the opening of e-mail attachments. Before sending an attachment, ask if the reader would prefer to receive the information as an attachment or as part of the message itself.

10. Incorporate a Salutation and Signature. Doing so will establish your role in the document’s history, no matter how often it’s forwarded. Added benefit: Your signature signals the end, sparing readers the trouble of scrolling the screen.

11. Punctuation Pointers. Some writers try to enliven their e-mail and generate reader interest by slapping an exclamation point onto the end of nearly every sentence! Don’t fall into this trap! Pump up your writing with descriptive language and well-crafted sentences. Likewise, resist the urge to Capitalize. Eager for reader attention, many e-mail writers use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Bad idea. The eye is used to reading a mix of upper and lowercase letters. Stick with standard style.

12. Think Before Requesting a Receipt. Short of receiving a response, how can you be certain your e-letter was received? The quickest route to peace of mind is to select the “receipt notification” option on your screen. When the reader opens your message, you will be notified automatically. However, readers may resent the implication that you do not trust them to open and read their e-mail. The better idea is to phone your recipient with a quick heads-up that the message is on its way and a timely response would be appreciated.

13. Don’t Use E-Mail to Deliver Bad News. Without the benefit of body language, facial expression, or intonation, e-mail is no way to deliver bad news. Whether you want to terminate an employee, notify a customer of production delays, or reject a prospect’s credit application, always deliver bad news by phone or face to face.

14. Don’t Risk Misunderstandings. If your message is complex, technical, or in danger of being misinterpreted, opt for a telephone call or a personal meeting rather than an e-mail message.

15. Acknowledge E-Mail’s Limitations. E-mail may be the best way to deliver news fast, but it’s not necessarily the best route to a quick reply. Your reader is under no obligation to check incoming messages regularly, or at all. It is inappropriate to send a follow-up message demanding to know why a recipient has not responded to your message. For an immediate response to a pressing issue, don’t rely on e-mail. Instead, pick up the phone or schedule a face-to-face meeting.