how to get your boss to read your emails

If your boss is like most managers, she gets a ton of email and has very little time to respond to it. That doesn’t excuse non-responsiveness, of course, but it does mean that your chances of having your emails read and responded to go up significantly if you craft your messages the right way. Here are five keys to writing emails that will get responses.

1. Be as brief as possible.Busy people are far less likely to read long emails. Your boss is unlikely to appreciate emails that read like streams of consciousness or include every detail of a situation or a play-by-play when she only needs the upshot. So keep it short – no more than one or two short paragraphs, if possible. If you absolutely must include more than that, try using bulleted list to make it easy to skim.

2. Start with the upshot.What’s the most important thing that your boss needs to take from the email? Find a way to say it in one sentence, and that should be your opening line. That might be about communicating some essential update or if might be about your need for a particular piece of information or action from your boss.

3. Be clear about what the purpose of your email is.Is it just an FYI? Are you seeking input? Do you need your boss to approve something? Whatever action you need, say it at the start. (If you bury that halfway through the email, you might not get it!)

4. Make use of the subject line.Vague subject lines increase the chance that your email will get lost somewhere in an overflowing email box, whereas a narrow, specific subject line is more likely to grab your boss’s eye. For instance, notice the difference in the amount of information conveyed in these subject lines:

* September mailing draft

* TO APPROVE: September mailing draft (need by July 15)

Or these:

* Craig Jones

* are we ready to make Craig Jones an offer?

5. Make it easy for your manager to reply quickly. One way to do that is by clearly proposing solutions rather than just laying a problem at her feet. Rather than saying, “What should we do about X,” instead try saying, “Here’s the situation with X. I’m planning to do Y because ___. However, an alternative would be Z, if you prefer that.” That makes it easy for your manager to write back with a quick “Y sounds good” or “Let’s do Z this time.”

 

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 122 comments… read them below }

  1. Holly

    I think it’s a sign I work at a dysfunctional company when I read the title and thought “well, that’s easy. Our owner reads everyone’s emails whenever she wants without us knowing.”

    It’s always awkward when she forwards someone an email from someone else’s inbox…

    1. Relosa

      Yup. My boss lives and works internationally so the only way for us to stay current on communication is if everyone – I mean EVERYONE – is included on everything.

      And if I’m not addressing him directly about something internal, I have to BCC him on EVERYTHING outgoing – group sales, service recovery, general inquiries…all of it.

      He reads them all.

        1. Holly

          Yeah, the owner has access to everyone’s inboxes, and frequently shows her hand by forwarding something from someone else’s inbox. It’s awkward.

  2. Adam

    I include pictures of cartoon characters, tailored towards my manager’s generation. So usually Looney Toons and Hanah Barbara.

    1. AnotherAlison

      Are you serious? I have no idea what industry you work in, so this might be fine, but if someone was sending me emails like this, AAM Alison would be getting this from me:

      My coworker is including contextually inappropriate cartoons with his emails. Why would he do that? Can I get him to stop?

      I mean, I love cartoons, particularly Dilbert and The Oatmeal, but I think it would be weird to include Yosemite Sam with an invoice sign-off request.

      1. Adam

        To be clear, I don’t do it often and only with people who I know will appreciate it. And definitely nothing lewd or wildly inappropriate. Most common example would be: as a response to an easy and simple request = Bugs Bunny giving a thumbs up, and such.

        It adds a little levity to an office environment that otherwise makes you want to pound your head on your desk. And I only do it with those who I know will “get it”.

        1. Gobrightbrand

          You’re not alone. We do that at my office too. Because the CEO loves it. He is the one who started it, he’s always sending us weird little graphics and videos.

          He also likes to photoshop faces onto other stuff. For example he will take a photo of us, cut out our head and photoshop it onto a super hero then email it to us as a response to something.

          If he’s getting a little worked up over something trivial (he freely admits to having horrible anxiety and is medicated for it) I send him silly images to bring some levity to situation.

          1. AnotherAlison

            Well, there’s two places that would be a huge cultural mismatch for me. I really could not imagine. . .it seems like it would be a minefield.

            1. Jamie

              Wow – that second one, I’m with you. The first time my face was photoshopped into anything my resume is getting polished.

              I’m not saying on my birthday I don’t get some emails with HK in festive attire wishing me a happy birthday – but work emails? That would weird me out.

              1. CartoonCharacter

                Guilty! I send Grumpy Cat notes to those I know will appreciate and often send funny thank you note images. I had not though of the thumbs up/down ones! Brilliant!

                I have to say I am kinda shocked anyone is uptight about a benign funny pic.

                1. Jamie

                  There are people from whom I’d find a grumpy cat funny if we have that kind of relationship…I was talking about the photoshopping thing.

                  I’m not a big fan of pictures of myself, to put it mildly, so to get my face photoshopped into different things would totally piss me off. Unless they photoshopped me back to the early 90s when I was 22 – then they can publish them. :)

              2. Bea W

                I’d be too busy ROFL to be polishing anything. This is why cultural fit is so important.

                1. Dutch Thunder

                  We definitely do this at my office. Not to everyone, but if I know that someone I get on with is having a rough day, they’re getting an adorable baby animal of some description.

                  Similarly, people know my Fridays are terrible, and every couple of weeks/months, when it’s a really bad one, a baby animal picture will be deployed my way.

                  Then again, I work at a company that is known as quirky through and through. Cultural fit indeed!

        2. Jillociraptor

          Yeah, we are big time into clip art and funny graphics. Definitely only when context appropriate (like sending a gold medal picture when someone does well–not in more serious messages), but we do it all the time, and it’s completely fitting with our culture which is more whimsical.

          But I wouldn’t say it helps with getting people to read things. :)

    2. anony

      Oh goodness, I’m with others. I couldn’t. It would be cute at first but after a while it would annoy the crap out of me. My bf likes to send me those silly stickers on facebook. After I failed to respond, I think he got the hint. I like written language. That’s good. Unless im playing win, lose or draw..

    3. ChiTown Lurker

      Actually, one of my bosses loved this kind of stuff as well. He felt that my writing style was too formal (tech manuals and audit information) and just felt that a good cartoon/clip art improved my message. So, I added cartoons/clip art. He also loved Comic Sans and felt that it was a “happy, more relaxed” font. Every email that I sent exclusively to him was in bright blue Comic Sans.

      I received the maximum 5/5 communication rating after these changes and he always responded to my emails. Sometimes, you just have to go with your bosses’ preferences.

      1. Bea W

        Ugh bright blue Comic Sans. That’s where I draw the line. :P Whatever one thinks of Comic Sans, you bring up a great point about tayloring the emails to match your boss’ communication style. If Comic Sans is what it takes to get a response, just bite the bullet and do what you have to do.

  3. Sabrina

    I’ve had manager in the past that would read and respond to emails, but their responses were useless. I’d ask “Should I do X, Y, or Z” and the answer I’d get back was “Yes”

    1. Jen

      That absolutely KILLS me. I’ll follow the five guidelines, brief e-mail and say “Between option A and B, which would you prefer I move forward on?” and then “Yes, sounds great.”

      The other thing that’s lovely is when I can’t get a response to an actual work e-mail like “Can you please sign off on the attached vendor contract? I have negotiated a price drop for the next year.” and I hear nothing – but then receive four e-mail forwards of very funny stories from The Onion. So it’s not like they’re too busy to read e-mails, just too bored to act on them.

    2. Jamie

      I’ve gotten those before – I always email back, “I think you were answering someone else’s question…and then I reiterate what I need.”

    3. MaryMary

      In those situations, I respond with “I want to make sure I’m clear: are you saying we should proceed with X?”

    4. Felicia

      I had a manager exactly like that too! How many of them are there? And I think I was being as brief as possible since it was only one sentence.

    5. Ann

      This drives me absolutely nuts. My current boss does that, and I honestly don’t know how I can make my e-mails shorter or more to the point. It’s like, when she sees that my e-mail has ten words, she figures that she only needs to read three of them in order to get the picture, and so she ends up sending back either incomplete answers or straight-up nonsense.

    6. GrumpyBoss

      Ugh… I had a variation of that boss once.

      Me:”Should I do X, Y, or Z?”
      Him: “Let’s save it for your one on one next week”
      Me: “I’m sorry, but this is a prerequisite for the task you expected to be completed by tomorrow. Really quick, do you have a preference for X, Y, or Z? If not, I’m leaning towards X”
      Him: “I do not have time to discuss this with you right now. We’ll discuss at your next one on one”

      week later….

      Him:”Why didn’t you finish that task”
      Me:”You told me to wait”
      Him:”Why didn’t you just ask?”

      ARGH. It didn’t take me long to figure out not to even ask him anymore. He was pretty awful. And in true, Corporate America dysfunction, he quickly got promoted up to a position over his head where he is presumably ignoring simple requests and lecturing people on wasting his time, ironically taking more time to lecture them than he would have spent if he had just answered their request for direction in the first place.

      1. C Average

        Arggggh. People like this are the WORST. I occasionally cross paths with a couple of these types. I always wonder why they remain employed. Are their skill sets really SO desirable that they outweigh the difficulty others have in working with them? Or do they have naked pictures of the CEO or something?

        1. Jamie

          Yes. Not the naked pictures (at least not that I know of) but I have absolutely worked with people who had kind of marginal (at best) skills in many areas and actively made other people’s jobs harder…but then I saw them do their thing. Whatever their one big thing is, and they do it so flawlessly it’s kind of breathtaking and then the lightbulb goes off – “oh, that’s why everyone puts up with the rest of that crap…”

          Although I am sure some are just pushed along because of bad management, nepotism, or naked pics in a safe.

        2. GrumpyBoss

          In the case of my boss, he made the absolute BEST first impression of anyone I’ve ever met. You were buying whatever he was going to sell the second he opened his mouth. People would promote his ass the moment he walked in the door. Then by the time cracks in the veneer started to appear, the people who put him up into power would keep waiting for it to get better, because, come on, he was obviously just that awesome at first! Meanwhile, he’s always behind the scene sucking up to someone for his next opportunity.

          I had heard the saying, “All sizzle and no steak” before, but never saw it in action until him.

      2. Windchime

        How do these promotions happen? I’m serious. I’ve asked this before and maybe Alison will be able to give us an answer that makes sense, but how is it that these incompetant nitwits keep getting promoted?

      3. CartoonCharacter

        Manage up! Heh. Remember don’t go around him and suck it up oh you can always find another job in this great economy.

      4. Bea W

        Ugh. This is when it’s probably best to pick up the phone, and if you want some CYA insurance, follow-up with a brief email summarizing the decision. Having email conversations like this would drive anyone to insanity.

    7. Eden

      One of the folks I work for does this All. The. Time. I feel like such a jerk when I have to write back, ‘was that a yes to X or to Y?’ But I have learned my lesson not to assume…pretty much every time I think I know which one she’s picking, it’s the other option.

      1. CartoonCharacter

        If you can get away with this just email saying you are doing this X. That way it documented you told them.

    8. AnotherAlison

      Add one more voice to the chorus. To compound the issue, he works remotely and travels every week, so email is really the only way to communicate period.

      Right now I have waited a week and a half for him to send out the announcement that I’m leaving the dept. soon. I didn’t ask him to do that, it was how he said he wanted to handle it. In the interim, I have field requests like normal. (It’s fine for the short-term stuff, but like yesterday, we got a new vendor account manager who wanted to set up a meeting for the week after I leave. I just ignored him for now, but I really need to tell him to set that up with my coworker instead. It would raise questions if I delegated it now.)

      1. AnotherAlison

        lol. . .my manager just sent said email out to the group. . .sometimes you just have to send out the vibes to the universe.

    9. louise

      UGH! Yes. I was fired from a small law office notorious for unusually high turnover in our area. They told me I “wasn’t a good fit.” I wanted to scream, “Yeah, I know!! Y’all don’t know what you want and answer Yes to every either/or email I send! Have you no reading comprehension skills? I will never fit in when I want clear communication and you clearly need a mindreader.” Mind you, this was happening on super succinct, two-line emails.

    10. ThursdaysGeek

      After reading many replies to this, here is how I would deal with that. Ask “Should I do X, Y, or Z? I’ll do Y unless I hear differently by (some reasonable date or time)”. Then, if they don’t read the email and they ask “why did you do Y?” I have the email where I informed them. I try to make the best choice, as far as I understand it. If it’s wrong, well, they could have told me. In the meantime, at least I’m not just waiting to do something.

    11. ChiTown Lurker

      My boss would gladly and quickly read my e-mails and even respond verbally but I could not get a written response.. I needed a response in writing for audit purposes. If you use Outlook, you can use the voting buttons option. You can use the default settings: yes/no or yes/no/maybe or create custom tabs. I would provide the details in the email for each of the options and all he had to do was click on his choice. It was great for the response-challenged/time challenged. This functionality saved my sanity and possibly his life and it provides a great audit trail.

      1. Jess

        I never knew about the voting options until now. That is so cool! Unfortunately, my higher ups seem to not know how to use the “Accept/Decline/Suggest Another Time” button on Outlook invitations (why? it is so freaking easy!) , so my hopes of having them use voting buttons are pretty slim.

        1. Julie

          I think you’re right because, depending on the version of Outlook, the recipient needs to either open the email (not view it in the preview pane) or look at the top of the email and click a button. And clearly this is too much for some folks.

  4. Jamie

    I am proud that I do all of these things – including FYI CMAs.

    On rare occasions where I’m sending something merely to cover my own ass I will tell him that, and ask him to read it.

    I can be wordy but I learned in email to everyone lead with the important thing, bullet points, and however many words I think I need cut it by 1/3. Absolutely improved my communication.

    1. louise

      Yup! I’ve found that it takes me at least twice as long to write a succinct email, but it triples the likelihood of getting a response.

      I hope it someday becomes second nature to think in bullet points.

      1. Mallory

        I am proud that I do all of these things

        Me too! I got an inordinate ego boost from reading this article and going, “Yep. I do every single one of these things, which is why I’m so awesome.” :-)

  5. MaryMary

    My favorite technique came from our offshore Indian associates at OldJob. When they really needed a response on something they’re emailed us about previously, they’d put GENTLE REMINDER in the subject line. They were so polite and we knew (well, learned eventually) how much they hated anything approaching confrontation with a superior. It basically shamed us into responding to their email.

    In general, I am a fan of using the subject line to emphasize when something is important and/or time sensitive. Depending on your relationship with your manager, it could be “Response Needed by 7/11” or “AMY, YOU NEED TO READ THIS ONE.” And yes, I have have used the second subject line and it was effective, but I had a great rapport with that manager.

      1. Jamie

        I’m with you – that would make me clenchy. Direct works much better with me.

        That’s like when people stop by my office and ask me if I’m busy, do I have a minute…when they could come out and tell me a production machine is offline and bottle-necking everything. I’ve never acted like doing my job is an imposition so don’t treat it like you’re asking me for a favor.

        1. Sadsack

          I don’t think they are asking you for a favor, just trying to be polite before launching into whatever they’re coming to tell you.

          1. Jamie

            I didn’t convey the tone correctly – I have one person who insists on stopping by asking if I’m busy, making some small talk before saying OH BTW SOME HUGE IMPORTANT THING IS DOWN AND NO ONE CAN RUN PRODUCTION AND EVERYONE IS PISSED!

            Some situations call for – hey can you come out now, we’ve got a problem with huge important thing.

            It doesn’t translate well in email but it’s a lack of urgency for things that are truly urgent which can grate – I don’t know where it comes from but I hate it.

            1. Eden

              I’ve been guilty of this (at least, the part where I sidle up and ask, are you busy?), and I think it’s because I, the news bearer, know I am about to throw a huge wrench in whatever you, the busy important boss, are doing, disrupting your plans probably for the next several hours, or even days, to deal with some big snafu. It feels somehow presumptuous to launch straight into the HUGE IMPORTANT THING IS DOWN announcement, as though I have not considered that you have other concerns.

              Not saying any of this is the right thing to do, and now that I know it’s annoying, I’ll stop, but I thought I’d try to explain the impulse.

              1. Chinook

                “I think it’s because I, the news bearer, know I am about to throw a huge wrench in whatever you, the busy important boss, are doing, disrupting your plans probably for the next several hours, or even days, to deal with some big snafu. ”

                I used to be the type of person that would soften with small talk before giving the bad annoucement that thet are needed immediately, but my best boss ever told me to STOP DOING THAT for the exact reason Jamie mentioned (he founded his IT company, so maybe it is an IT thing).

                He pointed out that I am normally polite, so if I come in and abruptly announced he is needed, he would not be offended AND know it was urgent. Since then, I have used this tactic, especially with IT/IS types.

                BTW, this is the boss who also taught me the value of using subject lines to help him prioritize when he was away from the office. Once he trained me right, I was able to threaten to not send him any emails until he got back when he kept replying to non-urgent emails on his honeymoon. I told him I would put DISASTER IMMENENT – PLEASE RESPOND if he was desparately needed in his absence.

              2. NavyLT

                Yeah, that would annoy me, as well. Look at it this way, you’re going to have to tell the boss eventually, and bad news never, ever ages well. If you’re worried about being presumptuous (which, by the way, it’s not presumptuous to tell the boss something he or she needs to know), you can start off with, “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but…” and get to the point of whatever crisis is happening.

              3. Bea W

                Not presumptuous at all, because the people who have to fix the problem really need and want to know immediately when some HUGE IMPORTANT THING IS DOWN. If we’re working on some other HUGE IMPORTANT THING, we still want to know ASAP so we can prioritize and/or start delegating. Don’t let the OMG FIX IT NOW!!!!!! issues linger any longer than necessary.

            2. Anlyn

              I leave the “gentle” off, and usually put REMINDER at the end.

              So for example, first email is Subject: “Approval Required”.

              I don’t hear back, second is Subject: “Approval Required – REMINDER”

              Third would be Subject: “Approval Required – Final Notice”.

              Nothing big or flashy, no major flags or !!!!!!. Just simple, Hey, Pay Attention to Me Please.

              Of course, this works best in something like Access Requests, when if you don’t receive a response you can just reject the request. But it can be useful in other situations too; I’m just blanking on recent examples.

        2. Jenna

          I’d love having a boss and workplace that appreciated directness. Very unfortunately, I have been in situations where being direct like that would get me lectured or ignored instead. So, sometimes the people being so very gentle and starting off the subject may be using the thing that used to work with someone else. Bad bosses and coworkers can train people into bad habits.

        3. Mallory

          I didn’t used to hate “Gentle Reminder” when it was coming from our former deans assistant because I took it in the spirit of what I knew of her personality and the way she worked (both excellent).

          The same words coming from other coworkers have irritated me for the same reason (because I took it in the spirit of their personality and how they work (one or both areas: irritating).

          So for me, it depends whether I already find the person irritating or not. If not, “Gentle Reminder” doesn’t bother me. I think what bothers me from the others is that I know it isn’t actually a “gentle reminder”; it’s a PITA nag.

      2. cv

        I would read it as a quirk of working across continents and cultures. Within a US office from an American it would be a weird phrasing, but from someone who isn’t totally familiar with the norms of business language here? I think it’s a kind of charming in its attempt to temper the urgency of the request with the level of politeness they felt was necessary.

    1. MaryMary

      ‘Gentle reminder,” at least in this context, is more of a cultural thing. To make sweeping generalizations about the culture of a very large and diverse country, Indian workplaces tend to be very hierarchical and people do not communicate directly or forcefully, particularly to someone above them in the hierarchy. It probably took us three or four years of working together to get to Gentle Reminders. It was a vast improvement over the previous method of following up, which was mostly wishing and hoping.

    2. Eden

      Somehow I’m finding irony in GENTLE REMINDER. Is it a gentle reminder if it’s delivered with a sledgehammer?

      1. Bea W

        In places where I’ve worked “Gentle Reminder” pretty much involved re-forwarding the original request asking the recipient how things were coming along and a reminder of the due date.

        1. Bea W

          It was basically a euphemism for “prod this person a bit because they’re kind of flakey about responding.”

    3. hayling

      We have an offshore team in India, and I *hate* “gentle reminder.” I realize it’s not meant to be rude but it comes off to Americans as so passive aggressive!

    4. Sparrow

      Ah yes, the gentle reminder. Many of my co-workers are from India and I interact with people who work in our offices in India so I see this often. I find it mildly annoying, but I know it’s just a cultural thing.

      Also, instead of saying “I have a question” I get emails with “I have a doubt”.

    5. Ask a Manager Post author

      The thing I hate about “gentle reminder” is that it signals “I feel awkward approaching you about this and I don’t want you to think I’m annoying but I apparently I do need to follow up on this and I want to downplay that somehow.”

      It’s too much hand-holding. I can take just hearing that you need to remind me. You don’t need to stroke my hair and be so purposely gentle about it. It’s … ick.

      1. Jamie

        That’s exactly it! It’s kind of insulting that you think I’d be offended by normal workplace follow up and I must be some super sensitive ogre who is too intimidating to speak to like a normal person.

      2. Mallory

        Yes — that’s it! I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but that’s exactly it.

      3. Shell

        I have the EXACT SAME feeling towards Miss Manners’ use of “gentle reader.” Its a visceral turn-off.

    6. anony

      In my work environment, gentle reminders are used by my supervisor to address issues she must feel uncomfortable addressing with an individual. Very passive aggressive and it grates me. Also gentle reminders are right up there with some people’s need to use a smiley faces on all memos and correspondence. That grates me too. We aren’t in kindergarten here, if I need you to respond answer a question I don’t need to put a smiley face at the end.

  6. Persephone Mulberry

    I think #4 (subject line) is the most important – sometimes just getting your boss to OPEN the email is the biggest hurdle.

    1. GrumpyBoss

      You are so right… I know this is what I’m guilty of… I’ll make a request to my boss in an existing email conversation that he’s been actively participating in…

      “I’ll take action on that right away. BTW, on the Teapot Report, would you like me to expand the audience as we discussed?”

      Then I never get a response. I need to get better at sending a specific email with a specific subject.

      1. Jenna

        I learned to make specific emails when I ended up having to document my boss’s decisions. No, you did tell me to do it this way. Here is your reply to my email from June 19th. I kept folders for procedures because of that boss, even after he….vanished. (Seriously. We didn’t even see him walked to the car, or even hear a rumor of what happened or why. )

  7. Nanc

    And this is why I did a [virtual] happy dance when the boss finally committed to using the comments/discussion feature in our project management software! He still gets all the notifications via email (which he prefers) and because the subject line reflects the project and we can put hyperlinks to pertinent tasks and documents in the comments he has an easier time digesting the content. Bonus: he figured out how to set up folders and filter project emails into folders so it’s easier to skim the new emails and prioritize.

    I realize my experience isn’t pertinent to everyone’s situation but it sure has eliminated lots of email miscommunications.

      1. Nanc

        @Jamie, it has CRM features. @Ann O’Nemity, it’s not Basecamp but something similar. We looked at a ton of PM software and found something that was between Microsoft Project Manager (who uses all those features?!) but slightly more robust then Basecamp. A good middle ground. There was a learning curve getting everyone on board but when the boss committed it pretty much meant everyone went along.

        What I love is it’s cloud-based and has great tech support. I can log on anywhere and get to my stuff.

        1. Risa

          @Nanc – we are looking for new software at my company. I would love to know what you are using….

          1. AB Normal

            We use asana.com (email can be kept to a minimum; the system sends you reminders when a task assigned to you is reaching a deadline, so people who aren’t in the routine of opening every day to check on their pending tasks, like my boss, they can still get email reminders and answer the questions I have).

  8. manomanon

    This drives me up the wall and happens to me all the time. I try to follow the guidelines laid out in Alison’s post as a general rule because at least I can point to things and say “I sent this at noon and asked for a response” when my boss wants to know why something still isn’t done at 4.

    It’s particularly annoying because he hates phone calls and follow up visits when I’m not getting what I need but never takes the action needed whether it’s responding to me or doing whatever thing I was prompting him on.

    1. Valar M.

      Yep. I had a boss who would always demand things be emailed to him because he didn’t want people bothering him on the phone or in his office because it was not his preferred form of communication. Which was fine with me, because I prefer doing things by email whenever possible, because then you can get to it when you have an uninterrupted moment.

      The problem was he wouldn’t answer – and I’ve tried all these angles AAM suggests. I would sum it down to one small sentence and put the major words in the header, and just one or two sentences is the body. Still nothing. Re-asking the question or reminding didn’t work, and then he’d be annoyed when we were down to the wire and I’d just have to walk into the office and say “Mr. Smith, I need to know X Y or Z? It needs to be submitted in the hour” because he hadn’t had time to think about it.

      Answer your emails, empower your employees to do the things you don’t have time for, or don’t get mad when they have to finally confront you on a decision.

  9. Ann O'Nemity

    I’m sharing this article for sure. I seem to work with a lot of people who need some email tips.

    The other thing I’ve found is that everyone seems to have their own email preferences. If you’re trying to get a response from a superior, it helps if you can adapt to their preference. One of my bosses prefers detailed and formal emails, another prefers brevity to the point emails looking like text messages, and a third wants the the subject to include FYI, Action Needed, Urgent, NRN, etc so he can prioritize. I’d rather conform to their preferences if it means getting a faster response.

    1. Jamie

      This is such excellent advice. It’s really important to tailor your communication style, even outside of email, to the people from whom you need buy in.

      I’ve worked for bosses where I know they want a dialogue. They want to have a conversation about the pros and cons, how various people will feel about it, how I feel about it. They want to come to a consensus for course of action before the numbers are crunched.

      I’ve worked for others who don’t even want to talk about it until they have data – a preliminary CBA and ROI (just rough – to see the ballpark) will get you miles further than just spitballing about something. Those are my favorites because this is how I work so it’s easier when their styles mesh with yours – but I’ve learned how to do the chat thing, who is more receptive over lunch away from the office, who just wants to yea or nay based on the phase of the moon.

      Speaking in someone else’s communication style can’t be over estimated – it really works.

      1. Lora

        THIS.

        Now if only some of my colleagues would reciprocate.

        Also: If I send an email that sounds more formal than usual and starts with something like “Good morning gentlemen,” it’s because I want a written record I can refer to of our discussion. If you stop by my desk or call me to discuss further rather than emailing me back a confirmation or question, I’m just going to send another email to recap what was said–BUT my first assumption, sadly, after many many years in Big Pharma, is that the reason you walked over here from a building two blocks away or attempted to call my desk phone (usually a pointless exercise) is because you have some sort of interest in our conversation not being traceable, and you plan to throw me under the bus.

        I’m old enough to remember when if your colleagues tried to play the “I never said that, you misunderstood” game, you were pretty much at the mercy of the boss to decide who they liked better. Email is the most glorious thing in backstabby workplaces, and I love it SO MUCH.

        1. Jenna

          In my prior workplace, we saved ALL the procedure change notices. All. Occasionally we did need to point out to someone, that, no, this other even higher level mucky muck changed the procedure to THIS on THIS date. Or, more fun, that they themselves had changed it. We’d be happy to do this new thing going forward, but, let’s have something in writing and dated first.

    2. azvlr

      We recently had a similar discussion in my office about Instant-messaging someone. My entire team is in another geographical location. I am new and I have never met them. Do I message someone with, “Hi! How are you? How was your weekend?” and then get to me request? and chat briefly before getting to the topic at hand? Or do I just jump right in with little to no greeting and state what I need? Which is ruder: taking someone’s time with a personal touch or jumping right in with no greeting? Hmmm.

      My solution, at least for my immediate team members, is to say Hi and the copy/paste a random trivia fact and then my request. Not quite as inane as the usual small talk, not asking a question so they won’t feel compelled to answer it, but giving a point of conversation if the other person so chooses.

      This is similar to inserting the cartoon picture I saw up thread, but I would not do this in an email or for the folks at my own work site since I have other ways of building rapport with them.

      1. Jamie

        You’ve never met them in person, or you’ve never even spoken, emailed, or IMed with them?

        If you’ve never been in contact before asking about their weekend would be odd – but you don’t need to have met in person to have a rapport with someone. On the weekend open thread here I care about people’s lives and how their weekend is going and I’ve only met a couple of people in person.

        Do other people do the trivia thing, or just you? Maybe it’s a culture thing, but I’d find it odd if someone I didn’t know did this – I wouldn’t know how to respond. And even someone I did know, it wouldn’t work for me. Sure if people saw some trivia they knew I’d be interested in personally (like when people send me links to weird HK stuff – love that) it’s cool – but not if it’s random and done to everyone. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d really make sure you have the right read on the room before doing that.

        1. azvlr

          I’ve never met them in person. We have done every other virtual interaction out there, but I’m still just trying to get a sense of where I fit in with the team. It’s only two other people I do this with. The other team member is known for quoting movies, so it’s kind of a reciprocal thing.

          Again, I wouldn’t do this with my manager, just my immediate team.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        So I’m sure people have different preferences on this, but that would annoy the crap out of me. IM is an interruption. That’s fine when you need to interrupt me, but don’t DOUBLE the interruption by first requiring me to respond to small talk or a trivia fact (since I’ll feel rude if I don’t respond). Just go straight to what you need. “Hi Alison” is the only opening I need (and not even that) … and I definitely don’t want you to wait for me to respond to your “hi” before you get to the next part, because I might be waiting to see what you need from me before I decide if it’s important enough for me to stop the other thing I’m doing right now and respond ASAP, or if it will need to wait.

        We’re coworkers. We know we’re not at a cocktail party. It’s okay to go straight into what you need.

    3. Abradee

      So true, Ann. One of the top execs at my organization has a lot on his plate and is constantly traveling, so I tailor my emails to him as a numbered list of really succinct, to the point items that he can quickly scan. Were I to write him an email in a more narrative form, I would probably never hear back.

      If any of my items requires an answer from him, I’ll do my best to end it with a question that can be answered with a yes or no, e.g. “Are you okay with this plan?” “Do you agree?” “Should I pass this along to your assistant?” …etc. He usually responds within the hour with his own numbered list of responses, even more succinct than mine:

      1. Yes
      2. Thank you
      3. That’s fine
      4. Ok

      And so forth. Sometimes my emails to him can take a bit longer for me to craft because they have to be worded and organized just right in order to fit his preferred style, but it’s so worth it in the end as it quickly gets me the results I need to complete my own work.

  10. cv

    I’ve mainly had managers who I worked with very closely (as an assistant or in a very small office), and it’s enabled me to be sensitive to the flow of their work and their working styles. “Here’s that industry report I mentioned in case you have some time on your flight this afternoon”, “I know you’re in off-site meetings all day today, but can you give me an ok on x now and we can talk about next steps when you’re back in the office,” “Re-sending this because I think you might have missed it last week during that crunch on the Williams account.” If you know the recipient is someone who has thousands of emails in their inbox and responds mainly to what’s on top (as opposed to an inbox-zero type), think about the timing when you send a request.

    1. azvlr

      Also, if you manage other people or have folks who are dependent on you for information, let them know it’s ok (if it truly is) to bug you or remind you about something.

      When I was a teacher, I would frequently have students ask me questions in the moment (of an administrative, not academic nature). If I didn’t have an answer and it was not convenient to write it down, I would tell them I would check for them, but if I forgot that they had permission to remind me if I hadn’t gotten back to them by a certain time.

  11. C Average

    The ones I struggle with are the CYA emails, the ones where I’ve been asked (usually by another department) to do something that feels a little iffy and I’m looking to my manager to confirm that I really, really should do the thing I’m being asked to do. It’s not so much that I need my manager to say yes; it’s that six months later, when our director wants to know why I added coconut to the chocolate teapot recipe, I want to be able to prove that I at least raised the question, “Are we sure coconut is a good idea?”

    I’ve taken, in this scenario, to firing off a brief email to my boss saying, as briefly as possible, “Apollo from marketing has asked me to add coconut to the chocolate teapot recipe by Friday. I’m not sure whether you were aware of plans to alter the recipe. I have some misgivings.

    “I will add the coconut to the recipe on Thursday at 7 p.m. Pacific time unless I receive different direction from you first.”

    I hate doing stuff like this. It feels sneaky and political and a little dishonest. But I’ve learned to trust my judgment on what is and isn’t a good idea, and I’ve learned that when it comes to light that something wasn’t a good idea, you want it to be crystal clear that it wasn’t YOUR bad idea.

    1. Eden

      I don’t think there’s anything dishonest in this approach at all, nor do I find it particularly sneaky, since what you’re being asked to do by different departments could potentially be of concern to your manager. Political, yes; but it’s not always possible to be above political concerns. I hate doing stuff like this because I wish the world didn’t work in a way that made it necessary.

  12. CaliSusan

    I appreciate that I’ve had several managers who tell me directly how to get my email read — a lot will say “hey, if you need a response to something time-sensitive, print the email out and leave it on my chair.” So, I print the email out and leave it on their chair — usually with a short handwritten sticky that says “please provide feedback by COB” or something similar. Works like a charm, no worrying if they’ve seen something or don’t understand it’s priority.

    1. books

      I ask people to send as a calendar invite. If it’s on my calendar, I will do it. In fact, if it’s on my calendar, I’d probably jump off a cliff. If it’s not on my calendar, more than likely I will not be there (thus why I don’t have Monday, 9am, jump off a cliff).

      1. Meg Murry

        Not so much for tasks, but for events – if you need me to be at a certain place at a certain time, send me a calendar invite, not an email. Please. If its on my calendar, I will be there. If its buried in an email you sent a week ago – I probably won’t.

  13. Sabrina

    On the flip side of this, I’d like to see an article about how to get your employees to read your emails and not annoy them in the process, or something to that effect. I spent a lot of time at a company who did everything short and sweet and to the point, often in bulleted lists. Now I work at a place that has to send out War & Peace to tell me that some person I don’t know is taking over some department I’ve never heard of and blah blah blah blah blah. TL; DR I do not need a wall of text.

    1. Cath in Canada

      Yeah, we get stuff like that, usually about a change of staff in an office I’ve never even heard of, or an outage in a system I’ve never used. What makes it worse is that because of our weird organisational structure, I get multiple copies from multiple mailing lists – departmental all-staff, building all-staff, research division all-staff, corporate all-staff…

      My favourite was when I got four identical messages all saying “PageNet pagers are not receiving pages when paged”, followed about an hour later by four identical emails saying “PageNet pagers are now receiving pages when paged again”

  14. Non geordie beth

    My boss is so bad at emails i’ve taken to giving him a list every day of the things he needs to know about or respond to, giving details of the emails so he can reply if he wants. Drives me crackers but at least now he acts on more than he did before :-/

  15. Anonathon

    I would also add that #3 is especially true with forwarded emails. One of my past co-workers would constantly forward me emails with zero context. So I’d never know whether it was just an FYI or a “please oh please help with this!” message. (I’d ask and then he’d take ages to reply …) In a nutshell, please supply context if you’re forwarding a chain on which the person was not originally included.

    1. Alter_ego

      Oh man, I feel you. I work for a firm that works on projects for architecture firms. But we’ll have multiple projects under one architect. And one of my bosses LOVES to forward me emails from architects that say “hey, add card readers to every door ASAP”, but he won’t mention which of the 25 projects we’re doing for this architect he’s referring to, and my boss won’t add any other info before he forwards it to me, so I have to track him down or wait for him to respond just to tell me what project needs all these damn card readers.

  16. Mary (in PA)

    I report directly to the president of our company, who gets something like 500+ email messages per day. I can’t remember who told me this, but I know it was someone here: every subject line in an email I write to El Presidente has the action that I want him to take and the deadline I want him to take it by as its very first element.

    For example:
    Review ASAP: email blast to dark chocolate teapot customers
    Discuss by Wednesday 7/16: August plan for handle redesign
    FYI: An interesting article on Teapots, Inc.

    I started doing that within the first month of having my job and now it’s a habit…and I do it to everyone. (No complaints yet!)

  17. Meg Murry

    Its not my boss (he’s great) but I have an issue with a lot of people at my company that I send requests to never responding to my message if I make a request of them. So, since I do accounting, say if discover a discrepancy, I email the person in charge of payroll and say “Person X has been being paid out of account 1234, but her timecard says account 1243 which is the correct account – please transfer her pay from the last 3 pay periods from account 1234 to 1243.”
    Eventually, the person usually makes the correction. But I get no response that she got the message, that she’s working on it, that she’ll do it in a week – nothing. So all I can do is keep pulling up accounts 1234 and 1243 to see if there has been a transfer made between them. Its really annoying. And its not just one thing – its a lot of people at this job. I suspect it’s partially because a lot of the jobs here are still paper based, so its usually a one-way communication (Submit your paper request to person ABC, eventually whatever it is you requested shows up or the action gets taken) as opposed to a back and forth dialog, but its maddening.
    Although the real root cause is probably the fact that so many things are still paper based (we use a paper timecard that is filled it by hand – what is this, 1995)? with lots of things filled out by hand and then manually typed in each time – but I don’t have the power to fix that.

    1. Jamie

      This is incredibly frustrating – I hate when I have to follow up with people because my emails are met with nothing but **crickets** but they tell me they’ve been working on it – how could I know that?

      I flag every email coming in that needs a response and make sure by the end of the day I touch base and at least give people a heads up on when they can expect me to get to it. And if that changes I try to update the timeline, but sometimes I do forget to do that at which time I appreciate the reminder.

    2. AnotherAlison

      “But I get no response that she got the message,”

      Argh, you must work with my mom, who is coincidentally in accounting.

      SON to GRANDMA 12:00 pm text message: I will not be playing in tonight’s baseball game.
      GRANDMA to ME 8:00 pm: We’re at the game. He’s not playing.
      SON: Grandma didn’t check her phone (before driving an hour to the game)

      However, she never sends a “got it” or “ok” back (even when she does get it) so you can never be sure.

    3. Chriama

      Why not ask for a response? Give them a reasonable deadline and ask them to let you know when they’ve finished.
      E.g. Since we’re closing this quarter’s ledger next week, the pay needs to be transfered before then so we don’t have to make any manual corrections. Please let me know when it’s been completed. Thanks!

      1. Meg Murry

        I always do ask for a response – like you said, usually either “please let me know when this is complete” or “please let me know when you will be able to do this” or “please me me know if you can complete this by xxx date”.
        Nothing. The only time I get a response is when there is a problem. Even when I follow-up on ” I made this request to you about correcting the account number 3 weeks ago – when will you be able to fix it, I need it done right away”.
        To be fair, in the payroll example above there is currently one person doing what is officially 2 jobs and probably should be 3 right now, so I understand she is swamped and probably gets 25 emails like mine a day in addition to her daily tasks – but it takes 30 seconds to fire back with “got it” or “I’ll do this next week” or something, anything other than my email disappearing into a black hole.

        Other people besides the payroll person have less pity from me though. Just reply with OK or something. Please. Or at least tell me when its done. . grrr

        1. Jamie

          My boss has a great habit of doing this in meetings. He’s never ended a meeting without a list of action items, owners, and dates due – even if due for follow up and not completion. This is then sent to all attendees after the meeting via email.

          I totally stole this from him after the first meeting and do it, too…hopefully he thinks imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I’m not just a shameless copycat – but when I see something useful I poach the technique. We’re the only two who do this, though.

    4. Jenna

      I picked up the idea of “closing the loop” at some point, probably from something I read. If someone asks me to do something, and I have done it, I send a reply saying that it was done. Only a few people ever did that back to me, though that did include my favorite boss from my last job.

  18. Managee

    Honestly, I hate that this is a discussion at all. If you are a manager/boss, it is YOUR job to read/manage your emails. It so should not be on you staff to divine how exactly they need to trick you into responding (aka doing your job). Ick.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Many managers are swamped and have a zillion competing demands coming at them. Of course it’s on them to be responsive, but this is about making it easier/faster for them to get you responses quickly.

    2. jmkenrick

      Well, most of the suggestions in the article are simply good guidelines for communicating in general. I use a lot of those strategies when e-mailing different departments, or asking things of clients.

      Also, maybe it’s not something staff should *have* to do. But in the event that you have a lousy boss, or the company is going through a crazy period, having tools that allow you to reclaim some control can be really nice. There’s a limited amount of your job (your life) that you have control over…and it can be a really good and empowering feeling to use it where you have it, even in small ways.

  19. C Average

    Another thing to keep in mind is that the email serves a purpose beyond mere communication: it’s a historical document, too, and should make sense as a stand-alone piece of writing, no matter how brief it is.

    I’m hyper-aware of this because I’ve been in the same department for close to eight years (an eternity for my company) and have seen many people come and go from different roles. I’m always grateful when I can retrieve clear email chains to help bring new people up to speed on what happened when, and why. Sometimes old emails are the only resource available for gaining this kind of understanding.

  20. Jamie

    On the topic of making email more user friendly – if you know the odds are good someone will be reading on their phone don’t start with a Hi Jane – then a line break and a blank line then the message. It’s a small thing, but don’t make me scroll when I’m walking and reading. I don’t care if it’s a long email I’m just going to flag and get to later, but if you need immediate assistance or an approval for something don’t make me scroll for it.

  21. LiteralGirl

    A quick story about not getting an email response:

    Yesterday, my boss received an email in response to an information request he had made in August of 2011. Here is the email:

    “I’m going through old back-log and I noticed the above Intake.

    First, I would like to apologizes for just now following up with you. We have had resource constraints for a while, but our goal has always been to give our customers the best service possible.

    Can you please take a look at the original e-mail you sent and let me know if this work still needs to get completed? If I can provide you with any other information please let me know.”

    My boss hasn’t been in that position for 2 years. He probably doesn’t need that information any more, but we all got a deep belly laugh out of it.

  22. Bea W

    With my boss who spends most of her time in meetings and gets ridiculous amounts of email, the best insurance for getting an answer is to verbally mention it, either by calling and leaving a message or in person if you happen to bump into her.

  23. Young HR Manager

    Hi,

    One of the strategies that I adopt so that my mails are responded and acted upon fast is to NOT use a generic subject line like “your immediate attention required” OR “inputs required” OR “Pending work status etc etc. I focus my subject line on pointing to a bigger problem if the mail is not responded fast. For eg “We will loose $1000 if this project is not completed by…..” OR “Notes for our Next Team Review with CEO”

    These kind of subjects try to grab immediate attention. I have tried you may also try and share with me.

    Amit Bhagria

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