how do I follow up with people who are bad at responding to work emails?

A reader writes:

I work in academia at a relatively large university and I’m often getting in contact with people I don’t know, about research issues. I’m relatively new in the field and there is some business etiquette that I’m just unsure of.

I’ve found that lots of people are realllllllly bad at responding promptly to emails. It’s a notorious issue in my field. I understand this can happen for a million different reasons. But what is the best way of following up with these types of people who are not great at responding promptly (if at all)?

Although I deal with this pretty regularly, the specific instance I’m in right now is that I was trying to get ahold of Jane for two weeks by phone and her email is unlisted, so this was my only point of contact. I left a message and she never returned it. I finally caught her via phone and we discussed what needed to be discussed. She told me to email her and she or her assistant would follow up. I emailed, and now it’s a week later and I’m at the point I need to follow up with her. Now Jane is the only person who can give me the sign-off I need, so there is no alternate contact person for me to go to.

I NEED to follow up, but striking the right balance so I don’t come off as being pushy or annoyed, or annoying Jane with my multiple attempts at contact is difficult. Could you recommend some email/phone scripts for dealing with this issue?

Some people who get behind on messages will be grateful and apologetic when you politely follow up. Others will seem put upon. There’s not a lot you can do to control against the latter, so I’d just stay friendly and polite about it, unless you reach a point where you truly need to escalate in tone (in situations where you can; you can’t do that with everyone).

So, basic scripts, for either phone or email:

First follow-up: “Hey, Jane — I wanted to check back with you about X. I need to get your okay by (day) because (reason). Can you give me a quick yes or no so I can move this forward? Thanks!”

Second follow-up: “Sorry to be a pain — I’ve got this on hold until I hear back from you, but our deadline is looming. If there’s an easier way for me to get this from you, I’m glad to do it — just let me know. I’m going to leave you a voicemail too, just in case that’s a better way to get you.” (Or if this is a voicemail, say you’re going to email as well. In other words, just use both methods at this point.)

If this still doesn’t get you the response you need, how to proceed depends on who you’re dealing with and how important the thing is. If you’re dealing with someone senior to you and it’s quite important, at this point it will often make sense to let your boss know what’s going on. She may be able to step in and wrangle the answer you need (sometimes because her messages will be returned more promptly, and sometimes because she might be able to go over the person’s head). If the person is not senior to you, sometimes it can make sense to go over their head yourself — although depending on your organization’s culture, that might never be done, or might only be done with your boss’s approval, or other cultural variations that you’ll want to take into account.

A big point I want to make here is that if someone doesn’t respond to your initial attempt(s) at contact, at some point in your follow-ups you should try a different method (phone, email, or even stopping by in person). This doesn’t apply in the situation in your letter, but so, so often I’ve heard junior staff say “I’ve been trying and trying to reach Fergus von Livermore, and he hasn’t gotten back to me” … and then at some point it comes out that they’ve just been emailing the person repeatedly, and haven’t tried picking up the phone. If someone is not answering your emails and you need a response from them, at some point (like after the second email goes unanswered), you need to try calling. Not doing that, especially if it’s just because you don’t like the phone, is a surefire way to frustrate your boss and make her wonder What Is Wrong With You.

Now, back to your case. Jane has an assistant! Excellent. Contact that person and say this: “Jane told me that either she or you would get back to me about X. I’ve followed up with her but haven’t received a reply, and I need to move forward on X. Any chance you can help?” Assistants can be super useful for this kind of thing, and they’re often more responsive than their bosses.

{ 189 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. H.C.

    I have also found it helpful if I put response/deadline date in subject line (e.g. “[Respond by Mar. 1] Research grant proposal”) and/or near beginning of email with date bolded/color changed, if it doesn’t look too jarring.

    Reply
    1. CarrieT

      I also use phrasing like, “If I don’t hear from you by X date I will assume X.” But only in cases where I have agency to do that.

      Reply
    2. MLB

      In addition to adding a due date, keep your emails VERY short and to the point. If an email is too long, people may dismiss it because they don’t have time to read it, then forget about it.

      I’m in IT and have had to deal with this often, especially with the more technical folks (I had a developer that would ignore my emails unless I CC’d his manager). I disagree a bit with Alison about trying another form of communication, because with email you have a record of your attempt to contact them. I could see calling them, but if you don’t get an answer, I would email again and note that you also left a message. Be a thorn in their side until you get what you need and escalate when necessary. I hate when I’m dependent on others to complete my work and they’re unresponsive.

      Reply
  2. Professor Ma'am

    Why not stop by face-to-face? I’m also in Academia and have both popped into someone’s office and had someone pop into mine to get a question answered. Those in academia usually have a thousand things going on at once and it’s just so easy to let email slide. I know it’s there and I know I haven’t responded (and feel totally guilty about it!). A face-to-face for easy yes/nos or quick explanations is actually a relief.

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    1. caledonia

      For me and possibly other people, this wouldn’t be something I could do because they are in a different campus (I also have the OP’s issue from time to time).

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    2. H.C.

      Not necessarily feasible all the time, esp if either the OP or the person needed works primarily off-site or at a satellite campus or other generally unavailable for most of the work day (meetings, classes). But worth pursuing if OP & Jane are in walking distance proximity.

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    3. Competent Commenter

      Works great if it’s feasible. I agree! I also heard research that handwriting a note on something you want reviewed is the most effective way to get an answer. I had material that needed to be reviewed by six faculty members on short notice so I printed all the articles, added handwritten sticky notes saying “can I get this back by tomorrow” and slipped them under office doors. Damned if it didn’t work great!

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    4. Professor Ma'am

      Yes yes, of course I meant only if this was a realistic option (same campus, walking distance). My overall point was that emails and voicemails can be ignored and that those in an academic position tend to have a lot of things going on at any given moment (today alone I’m addressing 2 student research projects, a conference abstract, office hours with students, lesson planning for tomorrow, and grading). My to-do list literally includes “check inbox for important stuff” because I’ve had to skip over so many emails in the last 2 weeks…

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    5. OP

      In this circumstance, and several others i’ve encountered in my position, this is often not an option. Everything about Jane was unlisted and even if it was listed, she may have been located offsite. Many of the people I speak to or who my boss collaborates with are at different universities, different parts of the city, and even different countries. When possible though, it’s a good point.

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      1. Max from St. Mary's

        Off topic, but is this a public college? I ask because every public university/college I’ve seen is big on directories that list phone numbers, office locations, mail info, department, pretty much everything except blood type. If there’s a way of not having this info out there, please share!

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        1. Murphy

          I sometimes look people up in our directory and some of their contact info will be missing. I don’t know how they do it!

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          1. Ama

            The last university I worked at was notorious for messing up the directory info (for some reason they wouldn’t let you edit your own info, you had to email a particular office and ask for an update). When I moved jobs internally I had to ask them to edit my info three times before they finally got all the correct updates on there — including one time when my email inexplicably disappeared (which wasn’t supposed to be possible).

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            1. KayEss

              Having been on the other side of this, the universities I’ve worked at had their online directories set up to pull data directly from the HR database. I used to get a lot of calls as a website admin for directory updates when really it was HR who couldn’t be bothered to add new employees or update job titles/office locations in a timely manner.

              I think it’s still better than self-updated directories, because in my experience the more important it is that people be able to contact someone, the less likely that person is to EVER update their contact info.

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        2. H.C.

          I work in government, which is also big on employee transparency & info disclosure, but there are some exemptions around it. Usually this is for people who have a protective order against someone, or a documented victim of violent crime or stalking, or those seeking political asylum.

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        3. Media Circus

          Huh. I work for a very large public research university, and it’s entirely optional whether I list myself in the directory. If I do choose to be listed, I control nearly everything about my listing — job title, office location, phone, email. I was told this didn’t used to be the case, but this is how it’s been the 14 years I’ve been here. I totally get why public institutions would want to ensure all employees are listed (public funds, open records laws), but the one time I was mildly concerned about harassment I was grateful I had the control to unlist myself and didn’t have to jump through any hoops or persuade someone about my fears.

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    6. MCL

      I work for a huge state university on its flagship campus. This sometimes might work, but mostly we’re just understaffed and overworked and you would actively make enemies if you just dropped on by someone’s office (which may be located a mile or more away from your own office). Around here, they’ll get to you when they get to you. It took me a long time to figure that out and not be too mad about it. It sometimes is kind of hard to explain that to people who don’t work here, because they do have the impression that we can just call up X department and get it done today. The gears of bureaucracy turn slowly indeed.

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    7. Rock Prof

      I only do this with people who I’ve connected with in person before. If I was just emailing back and forth or calling, I would find this really presumptuous of someone if we hadn’t set up a meeting. At this at my campus, people pretty regularly work from home on days they aren’t actively classroom teaching, having meetings, or doing lab work, so I think it could also just be a waste of your time trying to find them.

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    8. Snark

      This is not directed at you personally, or at the pragmatism of this suggestion, but the notion of having to appear in person to get a response to an email aggravates me. It should not be necessary, ever, to physically walk over to where a person works so they can’t ignore you anymore. Academics give themselves entirely too much wiggle room on basic professional norms; we’ve all got a thousand things going on at once, whether we’re academics or not.

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      1. Robin Sparkles

        I completely agree with you but it sounds like this is the cultural norm in academia (albeit one that needs to seriously change). It really needs to change.

        Reply
  3. chica

    +10000 on emailing the assistant!!!!! This is exactly what assistants are great at! Be polite and ask nicely. As annoying as it is to have to ask and ask and ask again . . . sometimes it’s a thing you have to do, and in my experience no matter how angry you are you will get better results asking nicely.

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    1. Luna

      Yeah in academia you should almost always be copying the assistant on every email- even if the higher up said they would do it, half the time when they say that they really mean “I will have my assistant do that.”

      And at the very least the assistant can remind their boss in person to Do The Thing.

      Reply
      1. OP

        I guess as a minor update, Jane actually didn’t forward or copy her assistant on anything and then I never heard from Jane or the assistant until I followed up with Jane. So unfortunately assistant contact was a dud

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        1. Blue

          If this is a department administrator or a graduate assistant funded by the university, I bet the department can connect you with them. I’m sure they’re all used to this person being MIA. But I agree with chica and Lunda – once you have the assistant’s information, copy them on everything. Then you can reply to the assistant directly and politely ask them to follow up in person, since you can’t. (As someone in higher ed admin who corresponds with many different departments on campus, I seriously contact department admins instead of program directors/chairs whenever possible. They are infinitely more responsive and more helpful than most senior faculty.)

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            1. MM

              I suspected as much from your letter. Definitely try going to a departmental admin if you can. Hell, even go to the generic contact number or email for her institution, a graduate coordinator, the admissions office (that information is almost always publicly findable)–anybody whose job is based around communications and administration. So long as you make it clear that you know or suspect that this isn’t the right person to ask but you’re out of options, they’ll almost certainly help you; and being on the inside of the institution will make that easier for them to do.

              (I do a lot of cold calling for my current between-academic-stints job and in my experience, if you call the generic phone number and explain who you’re trying to reach and why, you get where you’re going even if it takes a few transfers or go-rounds.)

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            2. sap

              You can usually find out by calling the department office and asking someone for the particular assistant–I find that *calling* is much better for “who should I contact” questions as well.

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      2. mooocow

        This. Back when I was in academia, I have had excellent results with the assistant technique. Usually, the assistants are as annoyed by their boss’s habit of not responding to e-mails as you are. They understand your pain, and they know the boss’s schedule and habits, so they will remind the boss about your issue at the appropriate time. Often, I was able to get really valuable information from assistants, such as that the boss was working on an extremely tight deadline until X day, and would be likely to respond after that. Or they would tell me to send another mail to boss (and CC them) if I hadn’t heard back by Y day.

        Another technique I used with my own boss who had a reputation of not being available and never answering mails was to stick to 1 ask per mail, and to always formulate my e-mails to him in a way that they could be read, understood, and answered appropriately within 3 minutes. Max. 3 sentences, and a clear question/instruction of what I needed, plus a clear deadline (usually at least a week before I actually needed the thing…). I had really good results with that strategy. Obviously, sometimes I needed something from him that required more time (e.g., feedback on a draft). In those cases, I always included a ‘please let me know when I can expect your feedback!’ to ensure that I would get a response, because it seemed that that made him less prone to completely forget about my request.

        Finally, it was crucial to master the art of politely chasing people down. Of asking again and again and again while keeping a friendly tone. At some point your constant friendly reminders will shame them into answering…

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  4. Murphy

    Haha, this is very similar to my life.

    Some people will just ignore you. Alison’s advice about remaining polite and friendly is right. If anyone has an assistant, definitely lean on that person! They can help.

    I can sometimes use my boss if I really need something from someone. He has a lot more clout than I do, and sometimes he knows the person personally and they’ll usually respond to him even if they don’t respond to me. I wouldn’t recommend going over their head to their boss/department head just because they’re not getting back to you. Unless your institution is very different from mine, that would not go over well. We only get department/college higher ups involved if someone’s committed a big no-no.

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  5. Bad Candidate

    I had an issue like this recently. Requested something November 9th, it got done yesterday. I asked for repeated updates and got no where. I looped in personal contacts. Nothing. I emailed their manager. Nope. Finally had to get my manager, who got our AVP involved. No idea why it took so long. Sometimes management has to be involved to get answers. In this case phone and stopping by aren’t an options since I’m in the US and they are in Manila.

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    1. Jennifer

      Yeah, getting my boss on it, or anyone higher-up, frequently helps.

      I also have an “every other day” nag policy for big shots. If I have to wait for Big Office to sign a piece of paper, I send it on Monday, then wait and wait, then send another e-mail reminder on Wednesday, then wait and wait, and then by Friday (the due date) I either send a third one and/or get my boss on it. I can’t afford to be too much of a “nag” in my position of being a peon, so it’s a tightrope to walk.

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      1. Bad Candidate

        I don’t like to do it out of the gate, but after three freaking months, I had no other choice. I have another request, to the same group, that’s been two weeks now and they still haven’t answered other than to say they were looking in to it. Now the people that I have to get the information for are getting ticked and involved. I’m hoping by the higher ups putting their nose in it speeds up the process.

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    2. NaoNao

      Just as an FYI, I used to work in Manila, with a heavily Filipino staff. It’s a cultural thing that unless you follow up over and over with increasingly urgent messages, they assume it’s “not that important” and a lot of work procedures, norms, and laws are very different, creating an environment where…let’s say, “casual” attitudes towards work are more common than over here in the US. :)

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    3. Teddie Kuma

      Yeah, normally over there people just walk over if it’s urgent. Or yell over cubes, or IM/phone. :P I was born and raised there, and worked in an IT setting. Emails typically don’t get anywhere.

      There is a saying, “Filipino time is always on time!” (which is actually meant sarcastically) — when someone invites you to a party at X o’ clock, guests don’t really arrive until two hours later LOL — I remember arriving early at a party and ending up helping the host cook food while waiting for the next guest to arrive, which was at least an hour later. It’s just a cultural norm – personally, I think an hour late is way too much.

      Reply
  6. Greengirl

    Assistants are your best friend in getting responses from people. Cc’ them on all e-mails. Let the assistant know what date you need things by. Be on excellent terms with the assistant.

    I also work in academia and one of the shifts I had to make for myself is that e-mails do not get responded to as often because my faculty colleagues aren’t spending hours at their desk in front of a computer. I send e-mails all day. They teach, spend time in labs, go to conferences, have meetings with students, and check e-mail when they can. I don’t know how applicable this is to your situation with Jane but it’s something to keep in mind. It helped me be more patient when I first started in academia.

    I’m sorry. I know it’s really frustrating getting things from people but to a certain extent it’s just part of the working world.

    Reply
  7. I'm A Little TeaPot

    You may have a defined escalation procedure in your department. If so, use it. It’s there for a reason.

    Reply
  8. Competent Commenter

    I’ve got some tips as a person on both sides of this issue:
    1) Write robust subject lines. Try something like: “Time-sensitive: Need quick review/approval of magazine ad by 5 pm today”. That makes it clear that you’re on deadline, what the deadline is, what the need is, and how long it will take for them to complete it. Emails like “Smith Report” won’t get you as far.
    2) Every business email should have a clear ask, unless it’s a thank you. That ask should be the first sentence in most cases and certainly if you’re dealing with people who don’t answer.
    3) Keep your email as short as you can. If this email is also serving as documentation of something for you so it has to be long(er), make sure the first paragraph covers your ask in case that’s all they read.
    4) Stick to one topic per email. Don’t ask for multiple things/talk about multiple projects. If there’s necessarily three things they must do, like “read, sign, email back” then bullet those points if it’s not ridiculous to do so.
    5) Be complete while being succinct. Make your answer or request clear: “Attached is the paper for your review that we discussed this morning. We need it back by 5 pm on Friday.” People who answer “yes” to an email with several questions are the bane of my online existence. Don’t assume that they’re going to re-read the email thread or dig up your previous emails, especially if they’re looking at your email on their phone between meetings.
    6) If you can do it without being patronizing, bold the key elements, like the deadline or the requested action item.
    7) Double-check your facts. If it’s already hard to reach them, be sure that if you give a date, a figure, etc. that it’s correct. You will hate yourself if you have to email a correction and restart the clock.

    Reply
    1. Microbes are my jam

      Yes yes yes, to all of this. I’ve been an academic as well as an academic program manager at varying levels and am now an administrator at a university, and chasing faculty/research staff by email for time-sensitive (or time-urgent, or overdue) items is at least 50% of my job, all day, every day. These are all tricks that I utilize all the time, and they are quite effective. Really great list.

      Reply
    2. Canadian public servant

      Clear subject lines for emails are a best practice I wish everyone would implement (looking in particular at every colleague of mine whose email subject is the largely unintelligible name of the attached document, as per the default electronic filing system.)

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      1. SarcasticFringehead

        It’s gotten better, but at one point I had three or four different email threads going with our marketing manager about entirely separate projects, all under the subject “what’s your bandwidth?” or a variation thereon.

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    3. Blue

      In my role, I send a lot of emails to departments explaining why they can’t do a thing and providing alternatives. This usually requires way more words than I prefer to include in an email, but I typically get a response, even though I’m a nobody on campus. I follow some of these same principles, especially:
      1) Clear subject lines that communicate the importance of the issue.
      2) Explain the key issue in the opening 1-2 sentences. I usually include an offer to talk in person/on the phone if they’d prefer that to reading the rest of the email.
      3) Succinct bullet points and, yes, bolding. If I have a bunch of questions or points I have to include, I’ll divide them by category and clearly label each set. Basically: if you can’t keep the entire email to 3 sentences, be sure that they can get a sense of the email with just a glance.
      4) Aim for succinct but comprehensive. Don’t send 4 emails, each with a key detail; put it all in one (preferably in bullet form!) If you have to follow up with additional details, make the other info easily accessible. I typically opt for a summarizing sentence or a C+P at the bottom of the new message, “for reference.”

      This comment is not representative of that email style, ha!

      Reply
    4. Gloucesterina

      This list is fantastic, Compentent Commenter!

      I am more likely to use bolding/bulleting with peers as opposed to folks higher up on the food chain for whatever reason, but these are all great tips.

      I’ve also learned that if I am trying to schedule a meeting, it is dramatically simpler if I provide the person with a list of times I’m available with a specific directive (e.g. pick a time within in this slot; choose one of these two times, etc.). Going thru my own calender in order to identify the possible time slots is a pain but saves so much back and forth!

      Reply
      1. Competent Commenter

        I also worry a bit about using bold for people above me, but my student worker recently bolded her schedule updates in an email to me and I was so grateful! I wasn’t put off at all. So I’m more willing to try some careful bolds even for higher ups.

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      2. ErinW

        @Gloucesterina, I’m an assistant to an administrator, and you would not believe how much time I spend going through her calendar, finding possible time slots, and emailing them to people. She is generally the busiest person in any meeting I am arranging for her (save when she occasionally needs to meet with our institution’s president) so it’s just the most efficient way.

        Praise be to Outlook’s Scheduling Assistant. And to people at my institution who actually use their Outlook calendars.

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    5. Anonym

      Competent Commenter has competently commented on how to keep your [email] comment style competent.

      The world is a good place today. (Also, yes to all of this in a corporate setting as well!)

      Reply
    6. Academic Addie

      In academia-specific stuff, I would add a number 8: If there are resources required, let the other person know what you can provide. For example, I get a lot of invites to speak at conferences. But most of them assume I will travel on my own funding. So for me to confirm, I need to look at the meeting and decide if I even want to attend, decide if I’ll have research ready to present, and then run down the budget on my grants, professional development funds, etc and decide if I have the money. If someone can front some of the cost, and they say “We can front $600 for hotel and waive the conference registration”, that makes my decision much quicker.

      This is one place where academia often operates a little different than the private sector.

      Reply
    7. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks

      I’ve been having a problem with someone not responding to my emails. So yesterday I put *TIME SENSITIVE* in the subject line and re-sent the email… AND IT WORKED. Got a response right away. Thanks for this tip.

      Reply
  9. Still learning to adult

    Here’s a technique which requires a partner. First I’ll explain the situation that brought it up.

    I was working as a tech in a service company, and my boss Bill had a project with a customer. It required the customer’s lead contact, (I’ll call him Carl) to do some preliminary work of setting up some fiber-optic and ethernet links between campus buildings. Once all that was done, Carl was to let us know so we could proceed. Bill had been trying to call & email Carl for a couple of weeks to check status and start scheduling our part.

    Carl, for whatever reason, was blowing him off. No answer on office phone, cell phone, & voicemail, no response to email, nothing. Bill’s getting anxious to get the job complete and get paid. Kinda important. Bill reached out to me even tho it wasn’t currently my project.

    So I called Carl’s cellphone (If I remember right, from my personal cell – which would show up as either Unknown, or my name, and he didn’t know me from Adam), and in my most chipper introductory voice left him a VM about wanting to talk to him, need his help, etc etc. (but no about any specific thing, nor did I mention my company) and call me back as soon as possible.

    Within 10 minutes Carl had succumbed to curiosity about who I was & what I wanted. SNAGGED!!! like a fish on a hook!! Carl could not escape and I just drilled him for all the answers he owed. :-D

    You can’t use it very often, but when you do it right, it’s one of the most satisfying things ever!!

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    1. Naptime Enthusiast

      If I get calls and I don’t recognize the name or phone number, I do not call back unless I know exactly what they’re calling about. But I also get calls almost exclusively from telemarketers/scammers, so YMMV with this method. I’m glad it worked out in your situation!

      Reply
      1. Still learning to adult

        I’ll certainly grant you this; certainly, this happened before the rise of cell-phone aimed spam & spoofing calls, which have caused me to not answer most unrecognized numbers unless I’m expecting someone new to call me.

        And I may have dropped a phrase to him about ‘ our project together.’

        Carl had a bad habit of ignoring communications; it felt good to give him a boot in the pants.

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      2. Fafaflunkie

        Came here to say exactly what you said. If the phone number calling me isn’t in my contact list or I can’t recognize it I will certainly let it go to voicemail. And if they don’t leave one? I plead ignorance when their said they called (“So you assumed I have Caller ID on my phone? That’s pretty presumptuous of you.”) My biggest pet peeve is with people who think the world revolves around them. The ones who will call when I’m busy, not leave a voicemail when they get the message I’m unavailable to take your call right now, then immediately call back ad nauseam. BLEEP YOU!

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    2. TheMonkey

      If I had been Carl in this case, I would’ve likely ignored your VM (no idea who you are, no specific ask, no context of what you might want), so just be aware that it can backfire. :)

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    3. Teapot librarian

      In a former job we had contacts who would just ignore our calls, so we would *67 (I think that’s the right numbers) so that our numbers would come up as unknown. Again, we couldn’t do it all the time, but I did it once because I had a completely separate issue I needed to talk to this one person about and there was no way of getting her initial attention otherwise.

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      1. Fafaflunkie

        *67 works on landlines. It’s different on cellphones depending on your phone and your carrier. Usually there’s an advanced setting on your phone that does this on a per-call or permanent basis. Works fine for me with my work phone.

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  10. Anon Anon

    Usually what Alison describes works. Most people who don’t respond aren’t trying to be difficult, they are just busy or overwhelmed. I found up picking up the phone and calling generally does the trick if it’s primarily an email relationship. It’s far too easy to ignore or put off emails, but with a phone call it’s more challenging.

    However, i’d also add not to be afraid in very difficult cases to ask for someone more senior to assist. In very rare cases I’ve reached out to the person’s department chair of dean (usually under inquiring if the person still works for the institution), and that has been usually done the trick. But, that is literally a break glass in case of emergencies move.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Yeah, you can have compassion AND still need the thing you need. I just have one of those jobs where people need random things from me all day long. Sometimes its an approval, a lot of times it’s a question or concern they want to flag for me – just any one of our 250 clients across a six state region, any little thought that comes into their head, I seem to be the first person they reach out to. Have pity if I missed something you needed :(

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  11. Lil Fidget

    As someone who gets a lot of emails, I always appreciate when somebody helps me out when I’ve flubbed without trying to make some massive deal out of it – just forwards their last email (so I can see this is your second request) and says, “following up on this, I need X by Y date. Thanks!” 99.9% of the time, this prompts me to do what they want. If this doesn’t work, go to a phone call within 12 hours of sending. Usually the first email was long and confusing and I got distracted.

    Reply
  12. Simone R

    Academia is a beast unto itself with deadlines. There are only a few hard deadlines so everyone is used to pushing things. Professors submit everything at the last minute, and those who don’t are the exception. Workarounds include giving people deadlines earlier than you need them and explaining the situation to the assistant. I know it’s a hugely frustrating experience but getting comfortable with reminder emails and knowing that things will be done at the last minute will serve you well.

    Reply
    1. Future Homesteader

      Yup! I saw “Follow up” in the headline and then “university” in the first line and just started laughing and laughing to myself.

      Reply
    2. Who the eff is Hank?

      I work at a school and the early “public” deadline is the main thing that allows me to get my work done on time. If I tell people that I need something two weeks before I actually need it then I usually have about 95% of what I need by the actual deadline.

      I’ve also gotten better at letting people deal with the consequences of not getting things to me on time. I’ve stopped bending over backwards for the people who email me their 600 page document five minutes before the deadline and ask me to review and edit it. Nope, sorry, it’s getting submitted as is.

      Reply
  13. INeedANap

    I’m in academia (staff) as well – one thing that helped me a lot was letting go of feeling guilty for doing my job. Following up repeatedly when there is a deadline, or a project is getting delayed, or there is otherwise a need for a timely response isn’t pushy (so long as those follow-ups are professionally done of course); following up is just doing my job.

    I am unapologetic about hunting someone down when I need something and I try not to take it personally if that person gets annoyed by that. Of course, I make sure to be polite/friendly/professional in hunting them down, but ultimately we all are there to serve the university and its mission. If they are annoyed by me following up, that’s not really my fault or my problem, that’s their workflow issue to sort out.

    Reply
    1. Kelly L.

      Yep. And the other thing I’ve been trying to come to terms with is that sometimes things are just late. I’m pretty sure every single piece of paperwork in the history of this school has arrived at its eventual destination late. And that probably every deadline has some padding in it because everybody knows this.

      Reply
      1. Blue

        I, for one, always put a lot of padding around my deadlines but talk about them like they’re written in stone. I’m currently working on a project that requires information from every academic department, and a team member from another office just sent out an email saying, “We’d like things by X date, but we’ll keep things open so it’s fine if it comes in a few days late.” Nooooooo. It’s like he’s new to academia or something (he’s not).

        Reply
  14. Turquoisecow

    At a place I used to work at, people were so bad at responding to email. It really created a backlog. Some people were legitimately overworked, and some just prioritized my department’s needs so low that they might as well not have answered. It was a breath of fresh air when someone responded quickly AND pleasantly.

    A former coworker and I moved to a new company doing a very similar job, where people are soooo much better. I started before my coworker, and in his first month he told me with shock how people were responding to him in a way that was both quick and helpful, instead of never getting back to him, or “answering” in a way that didn’t actually answer the question. (We had a lot of those, too.)

    Reply
    1. Cobol

      (Sorry if this is hijacking) See my comment below for context, but how long were you at the first company, and was it hard to get back up to normal speed?
      I’m trying to stick at this company for two years, but I’m really worried about the bad habits I’m picking up.

      Reply
      1. Turquoisecow

        I was at the first place for about 7.5 years and my coworker even longer. The first company went out of business and a lot of people migrated to the second place (we’re not a huge industry, so there weren’t a lot of other local places) so that helped it to not feel strange.

        It didn’t take long to learn the basics, since I was doing the same thing, just with a slightly different computer program. Everyone at the old place had a pretty negative attitude that I think slowed down a lot of what could have made the place better – employees were not really treated well or highly compensated, so there was a serious lack of motivation. I really get the sense that this place cares more about their employees.

        The new place is a smaller company, so people are more personable and friendly with each other, and while there are certainly some grumps, people are generally more willing to be helpful and responsive. It did take me a little while to get used to the positivity instead of constant complaints, but the change of atmosphere is definitely awesome.

        Reply
  15. Cobol

    It’s important to take stock of expectations before you do anything. You mentioned you’re new to the field. How long is considered long?
    At my current company of 110 people (which admittedly is a horrible company) even two weeks is considered fast. I’ve had people respond to a mail two months later without any sort prefacing, like it was a normal thing.
    I definitely rubbed people the wrong way by following up weekly to things.

    Reply
  16. PN

    I’ve recently had to deal with this issue. It can be super frustrating, and I always feel like you’re going to come across as pushy if you keep sending reminder emails. Calling and leaving a message is definitely helpful. But what I’ve been finding the most useful is to use the magic phrase “kind reminder” or “gentle reminder” (ie. “Hi Jane! This is a kind reminder to discuss about X…”) it’s the only kind of wording I feel DOESN’T come across as pushy.

    Reply
      1. Blank

        100%. Especially when it gets used when someone is advertising their conference or event on a learned society mailing list. No. Just, no.

        I mean, there’s nothing “kind” or “gentle” about another flipping email I have to read, decide isn’t relevant, and then discard.

        Happily none of my current colleagues use language like that for internal comms. (And fwiw, we’re in the UK.)

        Reply
      2. Star Nursery

        Me too! I find “gentle reminder” condescending as well. I have to follow up on items regularly for things that I need to get approval from the higher ups. I just reforward my previous email and ask again. If I don’t get a response after three attempts I call around to find the person’s administrate assistant and ask them if they can help print out the form and put on the person’s chair.

        Reply
    1. TheMonkey

      I hate “kind reminder” and “gentle reminder” with the force of a thousand suns. :)

      This may have something to do with my feelings regarding the coworker of mine that uses these phrases most often…

      Reply
    2. lawyer

      Counterpoint: I really dislike the “gentle reminder” or “kind reminder” wording. It feels weirdly passive-aggressive to me in the way that “Hi Jane! This is a reminder that we need to discuss X” wouldn’t.

      I’m a chronic late responder to emails, because the volume of messages I get is so high. The main things that help me are subject lines that communicate what you need me to do and what the due date is (so “Please review by 2/27: Budget request for 2018”). If I know there is a specific due date, I’ll meet it. If it’s undefined, there are decent odds it won’t register with me or it’ll get done eventually but not at all promptly.

      Btw, the due date should never be “as soon as possible” unless the request is house-on-fire urgent. Except in extreme circumstances, “as soon as possible” is so often just the sender trying to push the burden of prioritization onto the recipient.

      Reply
      1. Eliza

        It’s interesting how differently people interpret things. In my workplace, “as soon as possible” without a stated deadline is treated as a slightly more insistent version of “when you can get around to it” — it’s something that needs to be done at some point, but actual deadlines take priority.

        Reply
    3. Someone else

      When people tell me they’re being “kind” in a message, it almost always reads as condescending to me. Kindness is subjective so I’ll decide if it’s kind or not, is kind of what pops into my head. Also because a lot of people throw “kind” in there to imply “my intention here is kindness regardless of the rest of the tone/content of my message”.

      Reply
    4. ErinW

      Maybe I’m a gorgon, but I get a little icier (and a little less gentle) with each reminder. I’m an assistant to a university admin. Once I was emailing a professor for the sixth or seventh time about something that was weeks overdue. Instead of addressing her by her first name, I addressed her as “Dr. [Whatever].” She responded by sending the thing and asking “What’s this doctor nonsense?” I hadn’t done it to get a rise out of her really, but it clued her in that our good-natured indulgence was waning.

      Reply
  17. Longtime Listener, First time Caller

    Great advice. I second everyone saying to contact the assistant.

    The only thing I bristle at in Alison’s response is the second follow-up script. I don’t like apologizing for something that isn’t my fault. So I would edit the script to take out “Sorry to be a pain.” You’re not being a pain. You’re doing your job.

    Reply
    1. Amy S

      I was going to post the same thing. Don’t ever apologize for doing your job. Just say Hey, I need this info by this date…

      Reply
      1. Jennifer

        I think technically it’s more like apologizing for being a nag, even though it is also doing your job.

        I honestly feel like I really need to apologize all the time in my job for anything, but that is because everyone is upset and on a hair trigger at all times and I’d better soothe them. I don’t care if I apologize or not for something that isn’t “my fault” as long as they don’t get angry enough to start calling higher ups about me. Which has happened.

        Reply
    2. aria

      I am a fan of “sorry to be a pain” in some of these contexts. It can definitely be overused, but I don’t see it as an “apology for doing my job,” but just a nicety that acknowledges that you realize the person has a lot going on and that what is a priority to YOU may not be a priority to THEM. “Just wanted to check in on this. I am sure you are so busy” is something that works, too. FWIW, I am in non-profit management, so I am often trying to nudge folks who are volunteering or helping us out in some that is not a part of their daily responsibility (LOTS of emails to professors who are doing talks for us and also board members, who are after all volunteers).

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yep, it’s about smoothing the interaction over in a context where relationships matter and you need something from them that may not be high on their list to deal with.

        Reply
        1. aria

          And I’ll add that I have been on the receiving end of these sorts of comments and nudges and it makes me appreciate the person’s understanding and reasonableness. It does not make me think less of the person, quite the contrary. (as always, so much depends on context, tone and relationship dynamics…)

          Reply
          1. London Grammar

            I usually use “Sorry to rush you, but” and then I write out succinctly what I need from the recipient. I usually get a good response to this, as it comes across as “I know you have a lot on your plate”. I’ve never had someone not respond to my second email when I’ve framed it this way.

            Reply
        2. Pickle

          A rare moment when I disagree with you! I think there are ways to soften a request and keep it friendly without apologizing. I think if the person is doing you a favor it’s totally fair, but if you’re just asking them to do something that they’ve committed to do and is part of their job, no. I think this becomes very gendered very fast– women are expected to constantly apologize in the workplace way more than men are. While it’s certainly easier for me to not apologize as someone at a high level in my organization, I worry about training lower level staff to apologize because it then can become a habit forever.

          Reply
          1. JHunz

            “Sorry to be a pain” isn’t an actual apology, it’s a stock phrase used to acknowledge that you’re asking (again) about something that is higher priority to you than to them. I’ve both used it and had it used on me by male coworkers. It’s not a gendered expectation.

            Reply
            1. Pickle

              Something doesn’t have to be exclusively used by women to be gendered. Women apologizing more than men, and apologizing unnecessarily, is a well documented phenomenon. And just because a phrase is common or stock doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything. If you don’t mean “Sorry”, why say it? There are other ways to communicate ongoing friendliness in your tone. I usually go with “Hope you had a good weekend!” or something similar followed by an explanation of why the request is urgent.

              Reply
              1. Squeeble

                That’s true, but I also think women tending to apologize more than men isn’t necessarily the default bad thing here. Maybe men should apologize more.

                Reply
    3. Jadelyn

      I don’t see it as apologizing for doing my job – it’s just a stock phrase (which I use very often myself) to “gentle” a request. Which is sometimes critically important when you’re a relatively low-level person – say, a department assistant – trying to get someone senior – say, an executive – to do something you need them to do but they are light-years of authority above you. Unfortunately, sometimes the principle of the thing (you shouldn’t have to apologize for doing your job) has to give way to the politics of the thing.

      (Honestly, the ability to gently herd high-level cats can be a freaking art form.)

      Reply
  18. Professor Ronny

    Every school I’ve taught at has a webpage where you can look up phone numbers and email addresses.

    Professors prioritize as follows 1) students, 2) research, 3) department chair / dean, 4) everything else. No way around that. (A few are 1) research and 2) students.) Nag if you need to. Contact departmental secretary if urgent but don’t cc on every email as someone suggested.

    If it’s near the start or end of the semester (or quarter), you are not going to get a quick response no matter what. There are other, much more urgent (to the professor) things going on. You have to time your requests accordingly.

    The only break/vacation professors get are between semesters (or quarters). You almost certainly will not get a response quickly then.

    Reply
    1. OP

      Agreed, same here! However, my university has a hospital which means a complicated relationship between my university and local health authority that is in charge of the hospital. Meaning that anyone who isn’t technically a ‘university’ employee, but an employee of the hospital or health authority isn’t listed. The health authority website seems like it hasn’t been updated in 5 years since what little contact info is out of date

      Reply
      1. Max from St. Mary's

        Hi OP, just read this, sorry I asked this question above…feel free to ignore it. And a shared hate for not updating websites.

        Reply
      2. KayEss

        Yeesh… my sympathies on that situation. I worked at a university with a similar hospital affiliate setup and every single person I ever had to interact with on the affiliate side was an absolute nightmare of dismissive entitlement. If Jane is a medical doctor, she likely has a whole other set of priorities (and possible personality issues) that mean she just doesn’t care a ton about university-related communications or tasks.

        Reply
        1. Marillenbaum

          Could I get you to have a talk with my boss, then? He answers maybe 50% of student emails and regularly cancels our meetings without telling me (I am also a student, but I work as his research assistant).

          Reply
  19. Amber T

    This might seem nitpicky, or maybe just personal (as this is something that I’m personally working on), but I wouldn’t apologize for following up. If Jane is the hold up, then it’s Jane’s responsibility (and Jane’s team) to respond and act accordingly. A simple “Hi Jane, I’m following up on X…” is nothing to be sorry for. As an over-apologizer, just wanted to put my two cents out there!

    Reply
    1. OP

      I’ve had this thought run through my head as well. Part of me is trying to be overly gracious to try and stay in the good books if I am having to contact them multiple times. The other part of me thinks I shouldn’t be apologetic because what I am asking is part of this person’s job description and in some cases HAVE to go through them

      Reply
      1. Jadelyn

        To me the question isn’t whether I have to be apologetic or should be apologetic – it’s would it be more effective to pretend to be apologetic? And in many cases the answer is yes.

        It’s like if a coworker you hate had some minor misfortune and told you about it. While it might be more honest to cackle gleefully at their suffering because f*** that dude, it would make things worse between you, so you swallow your giggles and say “I’m sorry to hear that” whether you mean it or not.

        (And then you go off and giggle to yourself about it in private.)

        Reply
        1. Jennifer

          I’m with you there. It’s about emotion management of others to say “sorry” all the time for me. Whether or not I actually did anything or am actually sorry doesn’t matter so much as I immediately soothe someone who is going to get riled because I asked them to do their job a second/third/fourth time.

          Emotion management is everything here, though.

          Reply
      2. Amber T

        There are days where it feels like it’s my job to chase people down to finalize stuff, which will sometimes entail sending multiple emails, and sometimes going to their offices and saying “hey, respond to my email please.” When I first started at it, I would preface every email with “Sorry to bother you, but could you please…” It is not necessary. It’s not impolite to not say sorry for something that does not require an apology.

        You are not a nagging fishwife. You are a worker, employed by an establishment, with a specific title, tasked with a specific function, asking another worker, also employed by the same establishment, also with a specific title, to do their task. Sometimes people need reminders – no matter what your role, sometimes things slip through the cracks, and a follow up is necessary. I’m the lowest ranking person on my team, and I’ll get reminder emails from my boss or from vendors.

        And I get it, it sort of breaks the ice a bit when you lead with an apology, especially if the person you’re asking something from isn’t familiar with you. *That still doesn’t require an apology.* Not apologizing =/= rude. I feel like apologizing for something that doesn’t need apologizing for… lessens your standing? Your authority? I don’t know, neither of those are the right words I’m looking for.

        Reply
  20. Canadian public servant

    I live by the Manager Tools “no second emails” rule, in spite of my absolute loathing of phone calls. I have also perfected my “sympathetic but taking no bullsh**” phone voice. Both have made my professional life unimaginably better.

    Reply
      1. Triple Anon

        That sort of thing has made my life, not just professional life, so much better. Mine is, “friendly but talking no bullsh**”. Think of some straight forward, “This is what I need,” phrases and practice saying them with a smile. “Hey John! Have you gotten a chance to look at that email? I’ll need the teapots by Friday.” “Hi! How was your weekend? Just following up on my request. A $50,000 raise would support retention and save the company upwards of $100,000 in hiring costs.”

        Reply
    1. Ophelia

      Interesting! I can definitely see a no THIRD emails rule, but I routinely get hundreds of emails a week, and honestly sometimes a few things slip through the cracks, so a reminder email is really helpful for me if it was just an oversight. A second email that includes the text of the first also helps me catch up/find the info from the first contact more easily, whereas I’d feel kind of caught-out on the phone if I had to simultaneously find and pull up the original email while talking.

      Reply
  21. KHB

    My work also involves a lot of exchanges with busy academics. Here are some of the tips I’ve learned/figured out to maximize my response rate (though it’s still not 100%, but that’s OK for what I do):

    – Use a subject line that makes clear who you are (so your emails stand out in their crowded inbox) and makes you look as important as possible (if applicable). For me, that’s “(My organization) and (brief description of actual subject).” They work on (actual subject) all day long, so they’ve probably got a ton of emails with subject lines something like (Actual subject). And my organization is pretty prestigious, so seeing the name right up front makes them sit up and take notice and want to help.

    – Structure your emails so that they’re as easy to understand as possible. For anything more than a few sentences, I use a three-paragraph format. The first paragraph states the general purpose (“I’m interested in your opinion on the attached teapot design”). The second gives supporting details (“The design was submitted to us by Wakeen and Lucinda and includes a novel spout shape”). The third gives the action item for the recipient (“Would you make tea in a teapot like this?”)

    – Structure your requests to make them as easy to answer as possible. In the most common email I send, the “action item,” like the one above, is a yes-or-no question. When I need a lot more than that, I ask “Are you available to answer some questions?” instead of sending them a long list of questions straight away.

    Reply
  22. Ashley

    Yes to phone call follow-up! Just had a conversation with a co-worker complaining no one responded to her emails. I also usually call back if I get a voicemail to find a live person to verify the person isn’t out sick, on vacation, etc.

    Reply
  23. Teapot librarian

    I used to be fantastic about responding to emails and it would bug the carp out of me to have to follow up ALL. THE. TIME. Frustratingly I’ve become one of those people who needs frequent reminders due to an impossible to-do list. (Reading AAM is a perfectly valid use of my limited time, isn’t it?) I try to respond right away with a note “I’ve gotten this, I’m going to try to work on it by [date], please nudge me if I haven’t gotten back to you by [date2].” I do this in part to signal that I want people to follow up with me if I haven’t responded so that the person won’t think they’re being annoying by following up. Unfortunately for OP, this isn’t a solution to her problem, but a solution for the Janes of the world.

    Reply
    1. Not That Jane

      I’ve been on the other side of this, and I like it. My curriculum coach is so very busy and often says this in emails if she knows she might not be able to get to something right away. Then I just put it in my calendar for that date, and voila.

      Reply
    2. Gloucesterina

      Yeah, I love giving permission to students to send me a reminder email (e.g. If you don’t hear from me by X date, please send me a quick reminder email). Also helps me–if I know I’ve deputized a reminder person, I’m more likely to remember to do the thing they would have been reminding me about before the actual date!

      Reply
    3. Breda

      From someone who frequently sends open-ended emails with no set deadlines but that DO eventually require a response, the “I haven’t done it yet but am going to, sorry” email buys you so much extra time. The people who take six months but keep me in the loop about it stay in my good books much longer than the people who are silent for six months, even if they eventually do get me an answer.

      Reply
  24. Nervous Accountant

    Oh goodness what good timing. I was trying to give pointers to my coworker who was sharing with me that some people don’t respond to him.

    My solution was, if you don’t hear from the coworker after a few days/tries, it’s legit to email me/our manager.

    I personally prioritize my coworkers’ emails/contacts…I think it’s unacceptable to ignore them but I could be in minority’s to think that, idk.

    Reply
  25. nep

    Great scripts, great advice, as always.
    Perhaps it’s just a pet peeve — I would eliminate ‘Sorry to be such a pain.’ I know it’s just commonplace language in such situations and really not saying ‘I’m sorry’ in a strict sense — but for me better to go without.

    Reply
  26. QualitativeOverQuantitative

    I give someone two chances to respond to my email and then I end my third with “please advise.” Which is my corporate-polite way of saying “FTLOG get your act together and respond to this email.”

    Reply
      1. Goya de la Mancha

        lol I was going to type just like “per my email” being the adult way of saying “bitch, can you read??”

        Reply
        1. Amber T

          LOL “Per my email” and “please advise” are my favorite subtle ways of saying “get your sh!t together, please.”

          Reply
    1. Who the eff is Hank?

      I hate getting “please advise”, especially when it’s the first email I receive from someone about an issue. Double hate when the answer is somewhere easily accessible and they’ve been told multiple times where/how to find it and it would be quicker to check that source than to email me.

      It’s been a day.

      Reply
      1. Turquoisecow

        I hate “please advise” for two reasons:

        1. People send this to me in their first email on the subject, and there is almost always a hint of “you caused this issue” or accusation in the email.

        2. People at my old job could not tell the difference between “advise” (the verb) and “advice” (the noun). I can’t tell you how many emails I got saying “please advice,” and how little they made me think of the writer. (My company/industry was not known for brilliant communication skills, much to the dismay of this English major).

        The combination of the above made me feel like these emails were coming from someone who thought of themselves as above me…but could not be bothered to spell properly, so they’re really just full of themselves.

        Reply
      2. Jennifer

        Eh, I’ve been told to say “please advise” when we have to ask someone something. It’s a little weird but it could be worse.

        Reply
        1. Who the eff is Hank?

          I feel like “please advise” is an unnecessary add-on phrase because if you’re writing me an email asking a question then it’s implied that you’re seeking an answer from me. And as Turquoisecow says above, it has an accusatory tone to it, or at least that’s how I read it.

          Reply
      1. KayEss

        I’ve used just about every single one of those phrases, with those exact meanings. That’s probably a checklist item for “ways to tell you work in a dysfunctional office.”

        Reply
  27. Goya de la Mancha

    Early deadlines, always.

    Most of my work revolves around several yearly major projects. I’ve learned since coming into this position that if I need it by Y to get my job done, I need it from the team at least 1 week earlier. So I tell everyone X is the deadline and I start throwing balls in their court earlier when it’s time to start working on the llama grooming project. Nothing concrete too early, just a “heads up, it’s time to start thinking about the new Spring grooming tool line! Start brainstorming!” While most of them don’t make the X deadline, I haven’t had more then 3 times when the Y deadline wasn’t met since I started here.

    Reply
    1. MCL

      Yeah, this is a great tip. I also always try to plan projects with a padded timeline, especially when I’m trying to get something paid at our institution. It’s gotten better, but being a state institution and with a lot of auditing, things really just take a long time to get paid.

      Reply
    2. OtterB

      I do this too. I run a couple of annual surveys that go to university departments across the country, and the deadline always has room for “run around giving extensions and final reminders to nonrespondents.” The departments are mostly members of the association I work for, so it’s a delicate line between reminding people and nagging them since they are customers. Fortunately I encounter almost no jerks. They value the survey results and generally want to participate, so I get better results with honey than with vinegar – being sympathetic to the fact that this is one of many demands on their time, etc.

      I also follow a lot of Competent Commenter’s recommendations (bold things like deadlines, make the ask clear up front.) I also put secondary information that some readers will want and others don’t need, like the link and login instructions for the survey, at the end.

      Reply
  28. Sansa Stark

    Hey OP – I’m in the same industry as you and I can totally empathize. Literally just happened to me today. As other commenters have noted, I always find it is best to include a deadline in the subject line and then mark the email as important.

    In some cases, I have also asked my boss if I can CC them on the email. This is particularly helpful if your boss knows the person you need to contact (and you don’t). It’s frustrating but sometimes in academia (as with other industries) looping in a well known manager will add that sense of urgency (or intimidation) that gets the job done.

    Reply
  29. Ann

    I realize some people are super busy, aren’t we all, but there are some who just pretend to be busy and couldn’t be bothered with stooping low enough to actually give you answers or information you need. A pet peeve of mine, why should I have to hunt down a grown adult to ask them to answer my question(s) when I’ve sent it by email and they’ve chosen to ignore it!!? In some cases, I’ve actually sent the information or question by email AND printed it and put it on their desk or in their box. And still no response. In our organization, we’re all connected to our emails with our phones so I know they received the email because they can sure answer something I send that ticks them off! A quick answer is not only courteous and professional but helps keep the flow of everyone’s work day.

    Reply
  30. Fish girl

    OOH, this is exactly my wheelhouse. The phrase that I used endlessly at my old job was “Unless I hear otherwise…”. Basically, I’d send an email with a couple of options or choices, make my recommendation, and say “Unless I hear otherwise by X date, I will proceed with Option A”. So…

    “Should we groom the brown or white llamas first next week? I’d prefer the brown ones first, because they get grouchy if they have to wait for their turn. Unless I hear otherwise by Wed, I will proceed to groom the brown llamas first.”

    For my job, every little change to the Llama grooming schedule had to be approved by all 10 of the Head Llama Trainers. You know how hard it is to get ALL the Llama trainers to respond to a simple question, especially when I have to email them other changes every day of the week? Impossible. What’s great about this wording is that you don’t need a response to proceed. Instead of waiting to hear them pick an option, no response IS an option, the option that you put out there already.

    Obviously, you need to have your boss sign off on this wording and I realize that not everything can proceed without express consent from certain people.

    Reply
    1. Who the eff is Hank?

      This tactic is excellent, for the reasons you outlined. It’s also a great CYA in case someone comes back after the fact and asks why you did X when they wanted Y and you can point out that you explicitly told them you were going to do X and they didn’t express their request for Y instead.

      Reply
    2. Kitkat

      This! My other CYA move is at some point to ask “when I have questions like this, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?” The point of this is not to get any new information, but once they tell you they prefer email/phone, you are absolved of any guilt about bugging them using that method.

      Reply
  31. Alton Brown's Evil Twin

    It’s easier to find alternate ways & means to contact people in academia than in almost any other field. Find the department admin, and ask *that person* how best to get time from the person you’re trying to reach. They’ll understand your frustrations. Get up out of your chair and hike across campus if necessary.

    Reply
  32. Rock Prof

    As another academic, I wanted to reiterate what a lot of others have said about how repeated emails and reminders aren’t pushy. I explicitly tell my students to not be afraid to bother me if it looks like I’m not getting to something soon enough.
    I think a lot of us in academia have a lot of different projects (researching, teaching, assessing the assessments, etc.) going on involving having to change mental gears a lot, and like was stated earlier, deadlines are often not as rigid as some other fields, so sometimes it can take quite a push.
    But, if you come to my office when I’m not scheduled for office hours or if we don’t have a meeting set up, and there’s only a 50% chance that I’ll be there.

    Reply
    1. KG, Ph.D.

      “As another academic, I wanted to reiterate what a lot of others have said about how repeated emails and reminders aren’t pushy.”

      Another academic here, chiming in to say THIS THING. I actually include a blurb in my syllabus instructing students on the proper and polite way to follow up if I haven’t responded to their first email. I don’t mind being poked if I haven’t responded – I actually really appreciate the reminder. I think I’m better than most folks at staying on top of my email, but it can genuinely be difficult with my schedule and the volume of email I receive, and I’m not perfect.

      Reply
    2. Betsy

      Hmmmm, I do mind being poked. I have no problem with students following-up if I have genuinely overlooked their emails (which happens extremely rarely) or if I have taken too long to respond. However, if I don’t set clear boundaries, I occasionally get multiple emails in less than 24 hours, including during times like holidays or long weekends when I might be actually trying to have a break for a change, and students trying to add me on Facebook so they can talk to me there. These always have turned out to be fairly minor queries from students with poor boundaries and poor email etiquette. I would completely understand multiple follow-ups in a short period if it was something like ‘Help, I broke my leg and now I can’t make it to the exam and I’m scared I’ll fail”.

      Reply
      1. J.B.

        Multiple emails within 24 hours is definitely irritating but also the sort of thing that students are oblivious to. I think it’s worth setting the expectation – “I typically respond within 24 hours, if you don’t hear by 2 days then follow up” – or whatever it is, and then reminding the student of that expectation if they’re being pushy. Not everyone will pick up on the cues, but some of them will learn a good lesson for the workplace.

        Reply
      2. ErinW

        We once had a student who emailed about a registration issue first at 6:30pm, and then repeatedly and with escalating anger several times that night through about 3:00am. He was enraged we were not responding to his issue. The next morning at 8:00am (you know, when we opened) we all laughed at it for a few minutes and then sent him a response that his issue had been dealt with–no thanks to his attitude–and that he needed to advise himself of our working hours.

        Reply
        1. London Calling

          I had a colleague in our UAE office do this to me. Email on Saturday (when the UK office is shut) requesting information and a reminder on Sunday (when the office is also shut), gently reminding me. CC’ed to everyone at head office from God down. My polite reply (also cc’ed to God down) was that we are shut on those days and here’s the information you want.

          Reply
  33. NW Mossy

    This can be challenging to do when you’re still relatively new, but for those who know their roles and processes well, it can also help to think about whether or not it’s possible to design the process in ways that reduce the impact of non-responses. Fish Girl’s example of a default position in the absence of a response is one I use a lot in my team’s workflows, because it helps reduce the amount of back and forth to figure out the requirements for a request. My internal customers love it because they often don’t really have enough depth of knowledge to pick between two highly technical options, so hearing “90% of the time we do X; we’ll assume that’s what you want here unless you specify Y or Z” makes it easier to choose.

    If your non-responses are coming from someone who’s in the process to give approval for things, it can also help to classify the things to approved as either routine or non-routine. Routine items are the things that are almost always approved without changes; non-routine would be things where changes are more likely because it’s new, special, risky, or otherwise higher-profile. Routine things can become candidates for reduced review (in scope and/or the seniority of the person approving), and only non-routine things need to go to the ever-overloaded Head of Llamas. Even if you still route everything to the Head of Llamas, the labeling of the item as routine can make it easier for them to recognize that this is a quick-decision item, not a deep-pondering situation.

    Reply
  34. Fabulous

    I seem to recall a letter on here somewhere where the person includes in her follow ups the following phrase:

    “If I don’t hear from you by XX, I will assume your answer is Yes and it is alright to proceed.”

    I think that’s a genius way to get around the issue of nonresponse. Of course it won’t work in every situation, but it can cull some of the problems!

    Reply
    1. Bananabiat

      Just pickup the phone and call him. At that point, if they refuse, they are no longer ignoring your email but refusing to do their job

      Reply
  35. OP

    Quick update (some of this has been repeated responding to individual comments). Basically Jane told me she would cc her assistant to review the thing we needed approval for, then get back to me. So I had Jane’s phone and email, but was never put in contact with the assistant. I eventually called Jane and the response was basically “yeah I reviewed that thing and its fine… “, and I sorta got the vibe that there was a miscommunication somewhere along the line, that either she thought she had given approval, or the assistant was supposed to…or something, but whatever. I got it done finally!
    I guess the other thing to address with a lot of the comments was the directory that most universities have. My university has a hospital which means a complicated relationship between my university and local health authority that is in charge of the hospital. Meaning that anyone who isn’t technically a ‘university’ employee, but an employee of the hospital or health authority isn’t listed in the university directory. The health authority website which Jane was an employee of seems like it hasn’t been updated in 5 years since what little contact info is out of date. So legitimate suggestions, but in this particular case were not applicable.
    The scripts, subject lines, and empathy have all been great and I’ll be adding them to my arsenal! (especially since it is not research grant application season- hunting people down is just now a part of my life). :)

    Reply
    1. Sean

      Glad to hear you have some more tricks to help with this sort of thing OP. As someone who also works in higher ed, it can be difficult to engage with colleagues (especially faculty and senior-level staff) over email and sometimes situations are fraught with long-winded explanations and email chains. In addition to the focused subject (what do I need, regarding whom, and by when), here are two other tips I use:
      1.) Keeping the email short and sweet, just like the subject. The message can even be as simple as, “we have this problem, here is proposed solution, are we clear to proceed?”. As long as you’re polite and brief, the person to whom you’re reaching out should get it and be able to respond…and will likely be thankful for the short message
      2.) Leverage your relationships and human capital effectively. I work at a small campus and occasionally need favors and/or to follow up with time-sensitive projects and it always involves a series of questions: Can this wait? Do I really need this today to accomplish X and Y or would I just prefer it? When will I next have to interface with this individual in the immediate future? Is it worth reaching out with a reminder if I know I’ll need a critical favor from them within the next week? Did I recently go above and beyond to help them with Z and now know he/she will be more receptive to my follow up? The list of questions can be endless and some times, it will come down to the simple fact of you need this by tomorrow because that’s when its due. But I would encourage you to take a more nuanced approach to it to ensure that you’re connecting to the correct person in the best way to both achieve your desired goal and preserve or maintain a valuable work relationship.

      Reply
    2. MillersSpring

      A tactic that often works for me is sending people a meeting invite, which puts time on their calendar to discuss or even do the thing. I’ve worked with people who will not read anything sent to them, much less make edits, but I schedule a working session and they will read it then. Or if remote, I’ll share my screen via Lync/Skype; they read and I type as we discuss.

      Also, meeting invites can prompt people to suggest their available times if your suggested time doesn’t work.

      Reply
      1. Star Nursery

        Yes to the scheduling time with them so they read and give approval. This is what I have done with some one that has a lot of email and a packed schedule. I don’t always get responses to things I need approval so I put time on their Calendar and it’s like magic.

        Reply
    3. J.B.

      Glad you worked it out! The hospital thing makes it even more complicated – if Jane is associated with the hospital she is even less accessible (and possibly thinks she is different from the university.)

      Lots of good advice above. I have dealt with academics and government employees and the most useful tools in my toolbox are polite persistence and figuring out who to talk to. So I send a request with subject lines, etc with an initial deadline. If that deadline is missed, call or visit in person. Ask nicely “I really need this” and follow up daily or a couple of times a week until I get it. Keep the niceness but *keep asking*. Often this trains people that you will be a PITA and just to give it to you right away.

      As for who to talk to – this can often be support staff, other grad students. Basically people who stay on top of things. Walk around and talk with people, and be sure that they know when and if you can help them. This informal network becomes a great way for “I need x, can you tell me who to call next”. If you will ever be working with Jane again, see if you can do some detective work now to find her assistant’s email. Then cc her assistant from the beginning.

      Reply
  36. FortyTwo

    I know I lose track of tasks and emails (because I’m dealing with chronic illness and a child on the autism spectrum–there’s a lot on my plate), so with any new contact with whom I’ll be corresponding for awhile, I tell them right away that they should feel free to send reminder emails. I figure that it frees them of the stress of wondering whether to pester me, and it also helps me to keep track of my professional responsibilities.

    Reply
  37. thesoundofmusic

    I work in one of those places that will drown you in email. I really appreciate people who use the subject line to share deadlines, or provide enough information so that I can prioritize my responses.

    Reply
  38. Jadelyn

    My other suggestion is to, if necessary, CC someone else on the follow-up email. Either your boss, or their boss, or someone else involved with whatever it is. I wouldn’t *start* there, but I might go there after the first round.

    Reply
    1. London Grammar

      I think that can come across as a bit antagonistic, especially doing that in a follow-up e-mail. You may find that you still won’t get what you need. For example, you may receive back short ‘yes/no’ answers when you’ve requested more than that. I think the first follow-up is too early to be copying in your manager or their manager.

      Reply
  39. Bye Academia

    I identify with this post so strongly. Sooooooo strongly. Despite my user name, I work in an academic-adjacent position at a university. It’s huge and bureaucratic, and directories with email, room number, and phone are all grossly out of date. I follow most of the advice given by Alison and others and sometimes still don’t get a response. My request usually just isn’t that important to a busy professor or administrator, even if it’s necessary to do my job. My number one tip is to rope in your boss. In my case, the chair of my department. Whenever he gets involved, suddenly, by magic, I’ll get the response I need.

    Reply
  40. Casper Lives

    I’m going to remember these tips for when I need a follow-up on something. I recently used “I’m sorry to be a bother” in a follow-up email to great results!

    Not to go off topic, but I don’t understand why it’s understood and acceptable that academics don’t meet deadlines or communicate without lots of reminders/different communication methods? Maybe it’s because I’m a public defender and my deadlines can be “go to jail” hard, but a deadline isn’t squishy.

    Reply
  41. Mrs F

    A rare case where I disagree with (an aspect) of Alison’s advice! Much of this is great, especially about trying multiple forms of contacts, but I’d personally advise against the “Sorry to be a pain but…” phrasing. Even if coming from a lower power position, don’t apologize when you have nothing to apologize for! Instead, could start with, “I’m bumping this email back up because…”

    This thread is also a great reminder to busy people with some authority that others agonize over getting us to respond! When I’m asked a question a second time over email (and an appropriate amount of time has passed after 1st email), I try to add something like, “Thanks for bumping up this thread” to signal that it’s appropriate to contact me with reminders and to make the sender feel comfortable doing that again in the future.

    Reply
  42. stephanie anniece

    Thank you for giving me good language to use for my emails! As a student, I’m never quite sure how to handle following up with professors on time-sensitive topics, but now I feel a lot more confident in using Alison’s recommended script. This will definitely become part of my regular vocabulary.

    Reply
    1. Betsy

      I wouldn’t recommend using this as a student. It comes across as appropriate for the workplace, but not appropriate for a student communicating with a professor.

      I’d say something more like, ‘Dear Professor X, I’m just checking to see if you got my email last week about the essay draft. I was wondering if you could have a look over it before the due date on Friday because I’m not sure if it’s on the right track’.

      Definitely don’t say anything about ‘moving things forward’ or if ‘there’s an easier way to get things from you’. The relationship between a student and a professor is different from the relationship between a professor and a staff member, and I say this as someone who generally dislikes all forms of hierarchy.

      Reply
  43. GM

    When I need to nudge a higher-up or some senior person to respond, I usually send a mail along the lines of:
    As this is needed by [fast-approaching date], I would appreciate your prompt response so I/we can [proceed further/close this issue/resolve the matter etc]

    This has always gotten me good results.

    Reply
  44. Ayla

    Long time reader, first time commenter!

    I’ve encountered this with several people before. One slightly left field tip is to see if there’s any commonality to any emails this person actually answers. Assuming there are any.

    With some people, I’ll send most emails out of work hours because if I send during work hours they’ll go into a black hole. With others I find they respond to dot points, not paragraphs.

    Reply
  45. Jenny

    As one caveat to Alison’s advice – at my last job, phone calls to someone senior to you to follow up on something were Not Done. It was frustrating because sometimes an issue could be solved with a quick call, but it was very much outside the norm for my company and would immediately put you on the difficult/annoying/”doesn’t know their place” list. All this to say, make sure you know the culture before you assume that you’d be expected to follow up by calling!

    Reply
  46. Greg

    Steve Dalton’s book “The Two-Hour Job Search” (which I highly recommend for a number of reasons) has a great tip that I often use when sending emails, especially if I’m contacting someone for the first time: When you send your initial email, include a line at the end in which you promise to follow up after a certain interval: “I’m sure this is a busy time for you, so if we’re unable to connect by the beginning of next week, I’ll follow up and see if we can find a more convenient time.”

    This approach has two benefits:

    1. Simply by stating a deadline, it tends to encourage people to respond. I don’t know if it’s a subconscious thing or what, but people seem to want to head off a follow-up email by taking care of it right away.
    2. Sometimes follow-up emails can feel awkward or pushy, but if you’ve already laid the groundwork, it makes it easier. You’re just doing what you promised. You’re a person of your word!

    Reply
    1. Greg

      One more thing: Whenever I do use that line, immediately after sending the email I set an Outlook reminder to follow up on the date that I promised. Like I said, man of my word.

      Reply
  47. Erin

    Apologies if this was said already, but if it’s appropriate to the task, you can say something like, “Hello, I’m just checking in again about that report I need reviewed, which I’ve attached. If you see anything that needs to be tweaked please just let me know by the end of the week. Otherwise I’ll move forward with it as is.”

    Reply
  48. Jessica

    I thought some folks might get a kick out of this. I’m one of those folks who is apologetic about being reminded of something. But ever since I saw this tweet (from @MattBellassai), I now giggle when responding:

    “every time i reply to an e-mail, i sound like a civil war widow:

    ‘Apologies for the slow reply. ‘Twas a long and trying winter and life has been naught but a constant chain of struggle and despair. Please excuse my idleness during these troubled times…'”

    Reply
  49. Ann

    Another tactic I sometimes use in a follow-up e-mail after getting no response is to add “If you are not the right person to answer this, please let me know who I should contact” or “If you’re not handling X any more, let me know who I should talk to instead.” Even when I know for a fact that the person is the one I need an answer from, it’s a way of saying, “Look, isn’t this your job?” while still politely acknowledging that I could be the one who was misinformed and needs to be redirected. It also contains a hint of the possibility that I might contact the person’s supervisor (if only out of confusion or desperation).

    Reply

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