Steer clear of accusatory language, don’t apologize, and know when to give up, experts told Moneyish.
“The Rules” is a Moneyish series where we define the rules around sticky money or workplace topics.
It’s time to circle back on email etiquette.
The average worker sends and receives about 122 business emails a day, according to one estimate by the Radicati Group. And employees spend about six hours a day — or 30-plus hours a week — using email, according to a 2015 Adobe survey. It’s only natural, then, that some of those work emails fall through the cracks or get ignored.
So how many chances do you get to “follow up,” “touch base” or “circle back” on an unanswered email before your attempts grow unbearably annoying? And how do you avoid that predicament altogether? Here’s what experts said:
Make it as easy as possible for that person to respond, etiquette expert Thomas P. Farley told Moneyish. Determine whether email is even the best medium for your request, especially if you need an immediate response. Be direct and succinct. Have a timely subject line that communicates exactly what you need — that means no vague “FYI” or “UPDATE,” or reviving a months-old email thread — and put the most vital information up front.
Generally, you get three tries. If your initial email to a colleague goes unanswered, etiquette expert Elaine Swann said, you can check back in. But your third email — especially if this person’s unresponsiveness is holding up the process, or your work depends on their reply — should typically be your last. “You should let the person know what you need from them, and the timeline in which you need it — and if you don’t receive it, what your next steps are,” she said.
Don’t apologize for following up, Farley said. And avoid tacking on the word “just,” he said — e.g., “Just following up” or “Just checking in,” which only serves to diminish your request. “The more you apologize, the less powerful a position you’re checking in from,” he said. “Don’t apologize; don’t be sheepish about it.”
Stay away from accusatory language like “You didn’t do this” or “I’m still waiting,” Swann said, and opt for a more open follow-up like “Did you have the opportunity to take a look at this?” If they are bottlenecking a process, you might politely point out that it’s important to get their input in order for you to move forward.
Specify a deadline in your initial email. Avoid asking for something “ASAP,” Farley said, as that timeframe can be vague and subjective.
Let your emails breathe a bit, if possible. Swann recommends giving it 24 to 48 hours before following up on your first email, depending on the urgency. “I think if you haven’t heard from someone in a day or two, I would check in,” Daniel Post-Senning, an etiquette expert from the Emily Post Institute, told Moneyish.
Gauge that person’s email preferences in person, Farley said. Is email the best way to communicate? Is there a better time of the day or week to reach them? Do they respond to emails after hours and on weekends, or completely unplug?
Know when it’s best to give up. “I think you can reach out, I think you can follow up, and I think you can double-check that follow-up,” Post-Senning said. “But at some point I do think you start to violate the emerging courtesy that we don’t spam each other.”
If you’re emailing a contact from whom you want something, Farley said, “I think you can be politely persistent.” But if you don’t get a reply after three “nicely spaced out” tries, and your effort to reach them through one other platform is unsuccessful, it’s best to move on. You may still be able to connect with this person at a company or industry event, Farley said, or ask a mutual contact to make a warm intro.
Don’t take a nonresponse personally, Farley said, as “it happens to the best of us.” “Be prepared not to hear from someone, if they haven’t asked to hear from you,” Post-Senning said. “I don’t think expecting a response is necessarily reasonable all the time.”
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