how to deal with an unresponsive coworker

Ever worked with someone who rarely responded to requests for input or approval, even when you needed a response in order to move your own work forward? Working with unresponsive colleagues can be incredibly frustrating and can stymy your own productivity if you don’t find a way to work around them.

But all is not lost! Here are five ways to deal with unresponsive colleagues and get what you need.

1. Make it easy for the person to give you a quick answer. Some people put off responding to requests because it looks time-consuming and they figure they’ll do it later (and then often just never come back to it). You can sometimes head this off by making it really easy for them to give you a quick response. For example, try to ask yes/no questions, so the person can respond quickly. (One thing that will help with that is giving a quick proposal and “does that sounds okay to you?” rather than an open-ended “what should we do about X?”) And keep emails short so the person doesn’t have to wade through dense paragraphs.

2. Schedule time on their calendar. Send a meeting request for 15 minutes, or work with the person’s assistant (if they have one) to get a short block of time on their calendar. Then you can ask for what you need while you’re sitting right in front of the person.

3. Propose a course of action you’ll take if you don’t hear back. This won’t work in all situations, but often it’s fine to say “If I don’t hear back from you by Monday, I’ll plan to propose X to the client so that we stay on schedule” (or send the file to the printer, or book the tickets, or whatever makes sense in context). The key to doing this is that you have to give a reasonable amount of time for the person to respond; “if I don’t hear back within an hour” isn’t reasonable unless it’s a true emergency. You usually need to give at least a few days when using this tactic so that the person truly does have time to say, “Wait, don’t do that.” (And of course, make sure your statement isn’t buried in a long email they might not even read.)

4. Try a different method of communication. Sometimes I talk to people who complain that a coworker never responds to their emails, but when I ask if they’ve tried calling or talking in person, the answer is no. While yes, people should respond to their emails, if you need an answer from someone who doesn’t, it’s time to try another methods of communication. Pick up the phone, and see if that solves it.

5. Ask the person directly how you should handle it.If you chronically have trouble getting responses from someone, ask for their help! Say something like, “I’ve noticed that I often don’t hear back from you about requests I send in email – is there something you’d like me to do differently when I have things I need from you?” At a minimum, this will call the person’s attention to the problem, but you might also get insight that you can use – such as that their inbox is overflowing and you should stop by in person for anything important, or that you can flag action items in the subject line, or they’re able to field emails more quickly in the mornings, or who knows what else. Raise the issue (politely) and ask!

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 73 comments… read them below }

  1. A. Thrope*

    I love it when I ask yes or no questions and the answer I get back is something like “Blue” or “47”. Are you calling football plays or what?

      1. aaa*

        I get that sometimes, too, and it always annoys me. But if you say “I think we should do A rather than B because XYZ, do you agree?” then it’s a non-issue… and offering a proposed course of action is a reasonable thing to be expected to do, generally.

      2. James M*

        These people have a 5-word attention span. Somehow they’ve subscribed to the notion that everything important is expressed in 5 words or less, and that all subsequent words in the sentence, paragraph, speech, novel, etc… have no importance whatsoever.. They’ll tell you, with a straight face, that Moby Dick is about a guy called Ishmael.

      3. KH*

        I had a superior who would frequently just reply “Thanks” – it was so annoying because you knew he didn’t even properly read the question. It was so bad it was a running joke with everyone on the team.

    1. Mark in Cali*

      Or how about you when the response is step by step guidance on the issue when all you wanted was yes or no.

      “Do you know who our legal contact is for Chocolate Teapots?”

      “No, I don’t. But ask Jane and if Jane doesn’t know then you can email Joey and he should be able to connect you with Fred who . . .”

      “I can find out, but I just thought you might know off the top of your head. Thanks!”

      “Sure, but, yeah, call Jane. Or you might even try emailing Cathy and then go on the intranet directory and look it up. Did you look in the historical file? I bet the person before you had the same question.”

      “Sure I’ll do all that. Thanks.”

      1. OhNo*

        Same here, I hate that. The worst is that one of my former bosses actually took me to task, saying that I should know to check X and Z directories if I don’t know something and shouldn’t be asking others to do it for me. I had to be like… I’m not asking them to look it up for me. I’m not even asking them where I should look. I just thought they might know off the top of their head, since searching the directories takes twenty minutes, and it has the wrong info half the time anyway.

        Funnily enough, after I explained it to her, she finally stopped giving me long lists of instructions or asking me if I’ve checked X and Y and Z every single time I asked a question. Thank god.

  2. Fedhopeful*

    This is much harder when it’s your line manager, who travels and is physically unavailable. He also will only meet with me a maximum of once a week, regardless of the urgency of the work he’s dequested.

    1. John*

      I had one manager (business owner) who would only meet with me at 6:30 a.m. for a working breakfast. In between those infrequent breakfasts, I was on my own. He was pretty clear that dealing with me during the day, when he should be hustling up business, was far more important than giving me time. (He was also thrilled when I financed more car than I needed because he said the debt would keep me motivated.)

      Shocker, I left after four months. On my last day, I literally ran to the (pricey) car. Yeah, the meeting thing was just the tip of that particular iceberg. (I no longer buy expensive cars, either.)

    2. Nanc*

      I know what you really mean, but I giggle at the image of your manager making a dequest–like the quest is off–downgraded to a simple search!

    3. Ad Astra*

      My manager’s in meetings from 8 to 4 today, and a similar schedule for most of the week. But he still wants to sign off on every single thing anyone in his department does, so… sigh.

  3. The Other Dawn*

    Unresponsive people are such a pain in the neck. I feel like it sends a message that their time is more valuable that mine and they can’t possibly be bothered to answer such mundane questions.

    Most of the time I resort to #3. Propose a course of action you’ll take if you don’t hear back. I find this to be the easiest and least stressful. The way I see it, if they don’t respond it’s on them, not me. I did what I was supposed to do.

    1. Ama*

      Heh, I’ve found #3 the most effective when the proposed course of action is “it’s going to the printer as is tomorrow.” Even better when the non-response includes failing to send me a photo of themselves and I’ve been able to scare up a substitute. I always try to pick flattering photos but people do *not* like having that choice taken away from them.

      1. nofelix*

        Hah, this exact thing with the photo happened to me recently. I was away from my computer and couldn’t provide a decent photo in time, so for now my portrait is not me. I was really happy that the other person came up with a workable solution they were happy with, rather than insisting we use a bad selfie from my phone.

  4. Bostonian*

    I agree with all of these, but I think there needs to be a option #6: talk to someone above you, or above the unresponsive coworker. You need to do all the things Alison lists to try to resolve the problem on your own, but if it’s a big enough issue you may also need to make sure your manager doesn’t think you’re the problem and that the other person’s manager is aware that they are the problem. Plus there are people who don’t respond at all until a higher-up is cc’d on the request, and then respond instantly.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      I have done this when something is time-sensitive, or “working the process” Alison outlines hasn’t paid off. While it’s not fool-proof and can wind up being abused (esp. if the higher-up gets annoyed at the volume of email), I have found it effective at times.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      Plus there are people who don’t respond at all until a higher-up is cc’d on the request, and then respond instantly.

      Those people annoy the stuffing out of me.

    3. Susan the BA*

      I had a supervisor who HATED to be cc’ed on emails just for the sake of getting a higher-up on there. Her perspective was “if you have a problem with my employee that you can’t solve directly with them, please talk to me directly like a grownup.” I don’t know that I 100% agree with that, but it makes me wary of using the “cc the higher-up” tactic in case I just piss off both people.

      1. nofelix*

        Yeah it is a bit of an obvious tactic. Recently I had success doing it the other way around: email the higher up and cc their subordinate. This means you’re addressing supervisor directly which is more polite. And it allows you to explain what’s been going on without a lot of passive-aggressive sounding rehashing of facts like “Belinda, as you may remember on 01.10.15 I asked for X, and then we spoke on…” just to set the scene.

      2. Sarahnova*

        I understand that perspective; it’s definitely the passive-aggressive (albeit often effective) way to make your point.

  5. Jerzy*

    That black hole picture is pretty perfect!

    I have a project lead who is an unavailable micromanager. He has asked me at least six times for a detailed project plan, forgetting that I made one and sent it to him in AUGUST. I tell him I sent it to him in August and that he just never looked at it, and I send it to him again. He has offered no feedback, no comments, nothing. He doesn’t tell me I’m completely wrong, and I suck at my job. He just ignores it, and then asks me for it again, as if it’s the first time.

    Of course, he also likes to remind me to do things as I’m in the middle of doing them. Things that OF COURSE i’m doing, because it’s a part of my job.

    Maybe if he spent more time doing any of the things he promises to do, and less time checking in on my ability to do minutia, we wouldn’t be four months into our project with hardly anything to show for it.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      Do we work for the same person???

      Only my boss will finally provide notes on the project plan the week before the project is finished and after the major milestones have been hit.

  6. Elizabeth*

    I think it’s also worth examining whether or not the person you’re asking is the right person. When I first started my job, my old boss would tell me to ask a specific director questions on a specific topic related to our work, but she almost never responded. I eventually realised that he was used to dealing with her in a director-to-director relationship and that the questions he’d ask would inevitably answered by one of her staff rather than her. I started just going to those staff people directly and CCing her on the emails so that she was in the loop but didn’t have to deal with following up or delegating the task of answering the question to someone else, and it changed the response lag dramatically.

    1. Elizabeth*

      Also, as an organization we include response times (e.g. the department will respond to external inquiries within 24 hours, internal ones within 48 hours, etc.) as part of our performance metrics, so if there were major problems there would be something to measure that against rather than it just being “Oh, you’re unreasonably slow.”

  7. Luna*

    I have an unresponsive trainee. That’s worse than an unresponsive co-worker by a mile. Emails get ignored, face to face meetings turn into a joke while I try to make him understand that yes, he is learning something new and yes, I do expect replies to my meeting requests and the training exercises I set him. Via email.

    Rant over lol.

    1. Jerzy*

      The plus side is, with a trainee you have some level of authority over them. When the person ignoring you is your supervisor, someone who NEEDS to make decisions before you can move forward, someone who gets irritated if you try to move on without their ok, that’s a tougher spot.

      A trainee will learn quickly on their first performance review that ignoring their trainer/manager is going to get them out of job. There are (or should be) consequences.

      1. Luna*

        Unfortunately my manager doesn’t seem to care that this is the third trainee in a row that’s been lazy, disinterested and disrespectful, because she keeps them employed on the basis that their work is good. Yes, it is, but when they don’t actively listen to what you’re telling them and would rather not be there (or so it seems) it gets a bit annoying. I’m not a proper supervisor as in I have no authority, but as their trainer I expect a certain level of respect and enthusiasm. Sigh!

        1. Nanc*

          I know it is completely, utterly wrong in every way possible, but for folks like this I sometimes wish I could just bust out a Gibbs’ Slap. Or have my mother stop by and scold them about bad work habits.

    2. OriginalYup*

      Not responding to meeting requests always blows my mind. The invite itself as a yes/no question that requires an answer.

      I worked with someone who routinely ignored meeting requests. His logic was apparently that no response = decline. WHAT. (I’m still enraged by this.)

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        And I’ve worked with people who don’t respond to the invites, they just attend the meeting. Or not. So from that I can deduce that no response = decline or accept or maybe.

        1. Cath in Canada*

          I once insisted rather forcefully that everyone actually RSVP rather than just ignoring the invite and then deciding whether to attend on the day of, making it impossible to plan seating and catering.

          All but two people RSVPed “Tentative”.

      2. Ad Astra*

        Oh, this would drive me insane. Our company’s culture is to pretty much always accept a meeting request immediately. (It helps that people are usually pretty good about busy searching you so the time they propose is actually a time you’re available.)

        1. OriginalYup*

          It drove me up the wall and back down again.

          These weren’t big gatherings where the non-RSVPer was one of many and the content could carry on without him. It was like a four person meeting of which he was a critical piece. And then you’d have three people sitting in the room waiting for him, and he’d be all nonchalant, “Sorry, couldn’t make it” Then I’d end up spluttering indignantly about what is his malfunction and OMG I JUST CAN’T EVEN WITH THIS NONSENSE and have to go watch kitten videos on YouTube to calm down.

      3. Luna*

        I have to reply to meeting requests or I forget about them. I like to see them all sitting nice and neatly there in my calendar and it drives me nuts when people don’t do the same. It almost makes you feel you’re wasting your time. And when I feel like that, I tend to think ‘well, stuff you then’ because I’m so darn busy I don’t actually have time to chase after people.

        I think I need a new job. One with people who actually want to be there!

  8. Allison*

    There’s a woman on our team who works remotely in another state, and she’s definitely a “lone wolf,” off in her own world most of the day. She gets things done and she’s very smart, but she can also be unresponsive, which my manager admittedly doesn’t like but she often dismisses it with “ohh, Jane is just Jane.”

  9. Susan the BA*

    That black hole is where I want to throw people who don’t respond to emails.

    The worst: I was one of two senior-ish staff in a department where we reported to completely different people (long story… #academia). People frequently contacted me to ask if there was a reason Lucinda wasn’t returning their emails or phone calls. I would bring this up to her in our weekly meetings or other interactions (“Jane mentioned that she hadn’t heard from you about that overdue Federal Teapot Report and she sounded worried, do you think you could give her a call to at least let her know it’s on your radar?”) and would always get back “I don’t want to email Jane until I’ve completely finished the Teapot Report and checked it for errors and had the Teapot Analyst give it his okay” at which point I would have to tell Jane “Sorry, I’m out of options.” People would even ask me if there was someone above Lucinda they could report her to.

    Sadly, it took the people above Lucinda many years (and very large amount of money lost through various acts of negligence) to agree that this was a problem. In the meantime, the rest of us had to decide whether dealing with Lucinda was bad enough to quit our jobs. At the time, other factors made me say no, but after she left I realized how much less miserable I was!

  10. 123456789101112 do-do-do*

    “How to deal with an unresponsive coworker”:
    Step 1: Call 9-1-1
    Step 2: Are they breathing? If not, begin CPR.

    1. Tara R.*

      Step 1: Check the scene for hazards.
      Step 2: Ask any observers what happened, and get someone to call 911, grab a firstaid kit, etc.
      Step 3: “Hi, my name is Tara, I’m trained in first aid, can I help you?” <– no response, assume a yes!
      Step 4: Assess ABC's…

      (Just wanted to see if I remembered honestly.)

  11. Winter is Coming*

    When I had just started working for my present company, my manager refused to help me figure things out for whatever reason. His philosophy was, “you’re either gonna sink or swim.” This was affecting how well I was able to help customers, so it was really stressing me out. I finally figured out how to get him to help when needed. I would go as far as I possibly could – do my own research and come up with what I thought was a plausible solution, then I would let him know what I was going to do. Sometimes I was pretty far off base, which got his attention, which resulted in him saying, “oh NO, don’t to that! Here’s what I would do…” I ended up learning a ton from him, but it kinda sucks that I had to trick him into it!

    1. nofelix*

      That actually seems like a really good process to learn, rather than a trick. It would have been better for him to explicitly tell you to come up with your own solutions and present them, but otherwise this is a good way to work.

  12. Marilyn*

    The structure at one of my jobs was really odd. I had a coworker, who was my supervisor, but we were also each other’s assistants. It was a very odd setup, but the most frustrating part of working with this person was that she was unresponsive. Either she would take hours to answer a simple question (making simple tasks take hours unless I really pressed it), and there were also times where I would say something loud and clear, something that would warrant a response, and she would NOT respond at all! Just stared at her computer screen and acted as if she couldn’t hear you.

      1. Marilyn*

        It was very complicated. We were like a mini-department within a department. She was a manager, and I wasn’t, but we had to work really closely on various projects – so in that sense, we were coworkers. We would often split our workload if we could both do it. On paper, she was not my direct boss, but when it came to certain things, she was treated like she was.

  13. Workfromhome*

    I have had good success with variations of number 3. I can’t take all the credit as I borrowed this from a coworker in part>

    Dear Joe,

    I propose that we begin attaching the teapot spots using the XYZ method rather than the ABC method. The deadline for this change is November 4. A lack of response by November 4 will be deemed as approval to move forward.

    Yes there is a passive aggressive tone to this so its only used with people who repeatedly delay my work through their own lack of response. I always make sure its in the first couple of lines of the email to avoid people saying the missed it. Putting “response required by XXX date” in the subject line is also a great idea.

    Often these people who never respond need to be called out in front of others to get any change in behavior.

    1. Mockingjay*

      We use a variation of this in meetings when assigning or closing out action items. We say, “Silence is consent!”

      I work with the military. Marines can be extraordinarily blunt. :)

  14. Soupspoon McGee*

    I used to work at a place with a whole culture of unresponsiveness. If something wasn’t on fire, it wasn’t worth responding to.

    My job was to get funding for them, and I was the one in trouble when I either couldn’t submit proposals because I was missing giant pieces of information (like project design or budget) or if I got funding for something where I did my best to piece together what I thought they might want, but it wasn’t (never mind that I ran my ideas by several people and got no response).

    I tried meeting with leadership, presenting them with neatly bulleted lists saying, “I need input on these five projects before I can move forward,” and hearing, “Okay” in response. I broke down projects into small pieces with decisions and due dates, and people ignored it. Their supervisors made excuses for them.

    The exceptions were people whose jobs depended on funding, and even then I had to chase and cajole.

    It wasn’t always like that, until two key leaders, who were responsive, left. My former (most excellent) boss told me, “Well, now you’ve pulled a rabbit out of a hat, so they’ll expect you to do that every time.”

    Oh, how I do not miss that place.

  15. AnonymousaurusRex*

    Ugh. At my job we have an entire department that tends to be unresponsive. It’s especially tricky since we are often waiting on them for assets to include in a product. I’ll request something like, “Let me know when those teapot handles are ready so I can approve them before they are added to the teapots.” And I’ll just get silence for a really long time, then when I follow up someone from another department emails me to say the teapot handles were already attached and painted, without me getting a chance to check them. So of course they are painted red instead of blue, and attached upside down. Then the unresponsive team gets really mad that they have to make new teapot handles. Frustrating! Communicate, people!

    1. nofelix*

      Just a guess, but maybe their process isn’t designed to allow you to sign off. So either your requests get lost, or there’s nobody to call a halt and send you the work. Maybe you can interrogate the process, find out what triggers teapot handles being attached and where your sign-off could be inserted. Sorry if this sounds obvious!

  16. KatSD*

    I have a black hole situation too. Have a project director who either does not respond to requests and/or only provides partial answers. She puts things off for weeks if not months and then a few days before something is due starts frantically calling every 5 minutes that these things need to be done urgently. In the past, things have been rushed through and shortcuts were taken simply because she used this strategy to circumvent the process. However, the procedures are in place to ensure that the organization remains in compliance. I’ve tried all the strategies outlined and in meetings and via phone calls she’s all agreement and we’ve come up with an action plan and target dates and then nothing. Follow ups are ignored and then when things are urgent she refers back to the original meeting stating that everything needed was given at that time. I’m at a loss as to how to handle this. I follow up meetings/calls with an email summarizing what was agreed and what needed to be done. I send email reminders regarding all the outstanding issues and still nothing.. It goes into a black hole and/or is totally disregarded.

    1. Workfromhome*

      Sounds like a prime use for the Silence is agreement technique in number 3.

      request for follow up is sent include:

      “if no response is revived by XXX date this will indicate that the project is now on hold and no further action is to be taken. A lack of response will be taken as approval that the deadline will be missed. ”

      Might need to be toned down a wee bit depending on the culture but I think the message is clear. If I don’t get an answer I can’t do anything. If you wanted the project finished you’d answer. Since you don’t answer the logical assumption is you don’t want the projected completed. :-)

      An email trail like that is ideal to throw someone under the bus when all else fails.

      1. nofelix*

        Yeah this sounds reasonable as long as it’s diplomatically phrased. I like “will indicate the project is now on hold” although I can envision getting an email that just says “The project is not on hold! It needs to be done by X as agreed!” without answering the query.

        Another thing that could be added is including the consequences created by unresponsiveness. “A response is needed by Thursday 6th Nov for the project to move forward and meet the stage 1 deadline of 15th Jan decided in the planning meeting. Without a response on this, other work cannot continue and the project will be held up indefinitely.”

  17. Navy vet*

    True story, I was the unresponsive coworker with one individual at my previous job, with one person only.

    It was never on anything time sensitive or that I was not working on. It was intentional because I would see an email from her at 9 am asking me about something. I would put it on my list to work on and at 930 am she would walk to my desk (the next cubicle over) to ask me if I saw her email.

    So, to teach her a passive-aggressive lesson in patience I would hold onto the information until I was ready to give it to her. Unless it was an actual emergency or time sensitive of course.

    I was senior to her and she resented it because she is one of those people who thinks military experience is less valuable than a bachelors degree. She was (still is from all accounts) the office bully. I refused to bend to her will. Which frustrated her to no end. Everyone else would do what she wanted just to keep her from making a mountain out of a molehill.

    Sometimes people are unresponsive because the person making the inquiry is a negative black hole.

    Childish, I know…but sometimes you have to hold on to your sanity by any means necessary.

    1. nofelix*

      Waiting 30 minutes for a response to an email is really normal, so I don’t think you were being unresponsive. I’d guess most of the stories people have here are about waiting weeks or months!

    2. Amanda*

      +1 to this. I am That Person with one particular coworker, because she demands information a) way, way, way, way ahead of when I can actually feasibly have it and b) she follows up in the most neurotic way possible. (IE, frames everything with cutesy jokes but also asks over and over again if I have the information when I have clearly said that I do not, am waiting on x, y, and z and will be in touch with her when things are finalized.)

      When I tried a different tack and shared information with her *with the clear framing that it was tentative and that I would confirm ASAP, most likely by X date,* just so she would (I guess) feel better about having something, she would mix up my tentative information with my final information, or release my tentative information as if it were final and cause problems for me down the line, or snark me in front of coworkers when the tentative information had to be changed (ie, I thought a person was final on a certain date, but they had a conflict come up and needed to switch it).

      So I ignore her emails unless I actually have substantive final information to share. At that time I include everything. And then she writes me three follow up emails asking questions for the information that I clearly included in the email.


  18. John Cosmo*

    I think that often, a seemingly unresponsive person might not know how to respond and needs some time to think about a response that is thoughtful and appropriate. She (or he) might be totatlly unprepared for your request and think it is coming from left field.

    Also, in a busy office, there’s a good chance that your request might get delayed by something seemingly more urgent.

    Finally, those RSVP calendar notices are horrible! Just send an email saying that you’re having a meeting and tell the person where and when. When the meeting comes along remind the individual in person. Don’t send an RSVP that require multiple confirmations and having to save the confirmations, and don’t be surprised if you don’t get a response when YOU reschedule the meeting.

    1. nofelix*

      If you know you’re going to take longer to reply than the sender will expect, it’s good practice to let them know. Just a short note like:

      “Hi, thanks for your email. This is a good question which I will need some time to consider, and my schedule is full for the next couple of days. I’ll take a look at it on Thursday and give you a response then, hope this is okay. Kind regards, John.”

    2. Sarahnova*

      I’m… frankly quite confused by this comment.

      Needing some time to think is fine; in this case, you tell the other party, “I need some time to think, but I should have a preliminary answer for you on [x date]”. Never getting a response, of any kind, is just not OK.

      The calendar notices also aren’t “horrible”. They exist because they’re less effort than trying to coordinate meetings by email. All you have to do is click “accept” or “decline” and it’s added to your calendar. It’s also often not possible to remind the other party in person of meetings… and in general, it’s not most people’s job to remind their coworkers of their calendar commitments.

  19. Answer Me*

    Wow, this brings back stressful memories for me. I used to work with a lot of non-responders but I couldn’t move forward with my work. One in particular worked remotely and would never answer her email or phone. Even copying her boss only worked some of the time since he was non-responsive as well. I campaigned to change the process to cut these two out of the process altogether which we eventually did but it took way longer (years) than it should have. I don’t miss that place at all!

    Pretty much everyone I work with now responds timely and I love it.

    Sometimes the issue is the company’s culture – not holding people accountable and/or putting too much work on individuals (another problem I saw company-wide).

Comments are closed.