my employee didn’t check email for months

A reader writes:

I am two years into taking the top job at a somewhat dysfunctional local government agency.

I have an employee who has been here for 17 years and is mediocre in his performance. He does his job and does okay, but isn’t always a part of the team or as polite to the public as I would like. This week I found out that he has never logged into his new email account. Never, ever. It has been 60 days since we updated our email system and everyone was provided with written instructions on how to access their own individual account. He just hasn’t opened his, has lost his access instructions, and has not asked for help in getting access. He currently has 88 emails in his inbox that have not been reviewed. Many are from me providing updates on our programs and activities. Others could certainly be from the public asking questions.

I am a high-tech boss in a low-tech, small county government office, so I understand when people do not prefer email, but I am shocked and baffled by this, and I am starting to question my gut reaction here. I have been completely clear about the need to have email access and the expectation that you use email for your job and that I am going to be sharing information via email. I have mentioned in staff meetings that I will be sending emails later with more information on various projects, that online training instructions have been emailed to the staff, and so on, so I just can’t see an excuse for this.

His immediate supervisor is pushing for leniency because in the past this employee hasn’t had a work email account, and may not understand that checking email at least once a day should be standard practice. But the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. This seems like it would be the most basic of things to understand. You were assigned an email, and it is your responsibility to access it and manage it accordingly.

I guess my question is whether you think this behavior is excusable because email is new to him, or whether my initial gut reaction (disbelief, frustration, outrage, etc.) is the right way to look at this. Should I cut him some slack and give him another chance, or should I cut him loose?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. CatCat*

    I’d also find out if he needs training on the office’s email system. Not just how to access it, but how to use it on a day-to-day basis.

    1. Choggy*

      +1 this was my thought exactly. You have a employee who has never used email, and provide written instructions? I agree he should have spoken up, but I’m also sure he probably just thought he could slip by unnoticed. OP should absolutely not only let him know email is not optional, but also make sure he gets hands on training. We’ve actually introduced new software, provided training, and employees have quit because they did not want to learn anything new. If he’s such a mediocre employee who is not a team player, and not nice to those he serves (and who pay his salary, presumably?), perhaps it’s time for more serious conversation.

    2. WorkIsADarkComedy*

      It’s too bad you can’t engineer things so that he gets paid via email. I’ll bet he’d learn PDQ.

    3. Observer*

      I remember the original letter- the OP clarified in the comments that they had provided lots of instructions on actually using email, as well.

    4. Zephy*

      OP wrote in with an update way back in 2016 when this letter was originally posted – the employee had a personal email account (that he was also using for work purposes), so it’s not just that he’s a poor doddering old man that just can’t wrap his pwecious widdle head around this “electronic mail.” He just didn’t feel like doing this part of his job. I’d love another update from this LW, since it sounds like the old guy was set to retire last year or so…and I SO want to know if the LW sending out that explicit list of behavioral guidelines made a difference in the office culture.

      1. Momma Bear*

        I’d also be curious about an update. Not using work email is different than not using email at all. Since he had a personal account, it wasn’t about not understanding how email works. It was being deliberately obtuse about it at work. I hope he’s gone by now.

    5. SnappinTerrapin*

      I *had* an employee a few years ago who said he couldn’t understand how to use the email and other technology we used to make our little work world go around. I had a flip phone, he had an iPhone.

      Our schedule was on line. We had an online message board. We had company email. We had to go online to check our pay.

      I showed him how to access and use the tools. I told him it didn’t matter whether he used his phone, his home computer, the computer at work, or the computer at the public library. He was free to access the information however he chose to.

      He did not, however, have the option of ignoring instructions I sent him by email. He was responsible for reading and following instructions.

      I hope he found a job that suited him better.

  2. Chinook*

    OP, you are not overreacting. My current job is to teach adults who are going through career transitions how to use computers. Some of these people don’t even have a smartphone, so they are computer illiterate. Some of them have learning disabilities while others speak English as a Second Language. And every single one of them is capable of figuring out how to use an email program with a day or two of training (at most), especially since their salary (in this case, worker’s comp) depends on them learning how.

    It sounds like this employee is resisting either change or doing work (or both). I say that it is time to put him a PIP that clearly states how often he checks his email as well as offer to have someone who is patient show him how to use it. If he can’t do this, he should be fired as, in my mind, this is the equivalent of an employee who refuses to answer his office phone.

    1. Artemesia*

      If you can fire him, I’d fire him because he is overall a poor employee. If you cannot then I’d definitely start the formal PIP process.

      1. T bone 91*

        Good luck with that since he’s a government employee. He’ll play the “well I just don’t know nuthin about these new computers/e-mail” card. Then after you have some train him AND you document that he’s been trained and knows what to do he’ll start messing up work on purpose just to get out of it or people will just stop asking him to do anything other than the most menial, brain dead tasks.

        I’ve seen this firsthand as a government employee and I work in Federal. Best way to get rid of an employee like that is to micromanage the living s#!$ out of them until they either comply or see the writing on the wall and quit or retire.

        1. LCH*

          i don’t know the year of the original email but would that excuse work in 2020? are there still government offices that don’t use email??

          1. Malarkey01*

            We own some property in a rural part of a Midwestern state. With CoVid travel restrictions I was trying to do some business with the county department remotely. They had 2 general email addresses for the whole county government that led to a shared mailbox, Shirley checked weekly. Shirley was out and no one knew what to do. I asked if maybe I could send it to their direct mail address (which I assumed they didn’t normally give out to general public but since we were on the phone and Shirley was out…). Nope, no one in the county government had a work email. Since it was pressing she did offer to let me send it to Beth’s personal email (I guess Beth was a coworker) and she’d print it out for the records (Beths email address was hilarious and involved her love of lemurs).
            They were nice as could be, and professional trying to address my issue, but yes there are still local governments in 2020 that don’t conduct business over email.

            1. Ellie Mayhem*

              Yep, I live in a rural Midwestern state, and one of the alderpersons shares an email address with his wife. He doesn’t know how to use a computer and she refuses to teach him. She prints out the emails pertaining to his alderperson duties and gives them to him. He dictates any responses to her and she emails back. It’s maddening, but everyone else just shrugs their shoulders.

              1. Anon4This*

                I worked for a few years with a nationally-recognized expert on code and data rights in a major urban city, and he used the exact same method for handling email. His secretary, older than him but far more technologically savvy, would print his emails, he’d read them and make notes, and then she’d take dictation for his responses. He called his computer “the box” and didn’t learn to use the box until his children went to college and wanted to email him directly.

                It was… something.

                1. L.H. Puttgrass*

                  That’s the kind of thing you can get away with if you’re an alderperson, nationally recognized expert, long-tenured professor, or other VIP. Regular schmoes, not so much.

                  I’m reminded of a quote from Bull Durham: “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.”

        2. virago*

          In another comment, Zephy points out that OP mentioned in a 2016 update that this dude has a personal email address.

          For crying out loud! What’s stopping him from checking his work email except pure inertia?

        3. allathian*

          The employee was being obtuse. He used email in his personal life (as per comments to the original letter, referenced in other comments above), so he would have been perfectly capable of using it at work if he wanted to.

    2. ZSD*

      For the record, my elderly parents are in the “don’t have a smart phone” club, and they are perfectly capable of handling email and have been for decades!

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        “don’t even have a smartphone”

        Note that “even”. The point here is that most phones are cheaper than most computers, so the bar is much lower for people with little disposable income. Lots of people without a computer at home do have a smartphone. I’m willing to bet that your parents have at least one computer?

        1. Chinook*

          Exactly. When I start talking to a student, I try to gauge a student’s technological comfort level because they all say they don’t know how to use a computer but a large number do get email on smartphones, which means they understand some of the basic concepts.

          But, when I get a student who says she only has a flip phone because her kids would just take anything fancier (her word choice, not mine), I understood why the concept of “click on the app” had to be broken down into steps that included how to move a mouse, what the mouse was doing and which finger to use on which button.

          There is also a cohort of people out there who grew up pre-computers, never had to use them for work or play and only got a smartphone or tablet to be able to see grandkids with video calls. Some of these people also live in areas with spotty internet and cellphone dead zones, so it was never practical to have one. These are some of the people I teach and they have no problem reading emails and attaching their assignments to email it to me within 2 days of remote learning.

          OP’s coworker could easily have been this person but he has no excuse not to adapt and learn. Even if you live in a place with dial up internet or where you have to drive to the highway to pick up a signal, if your job requires you to check your email at least once a day, then that is what you do. It is a job requirement the same as showing up to worksite sober and properly dressed or filling in and submitting your timecard. Just because you don’t want to isn’t a good enough reason.

          1. JustaTech*

            Seconding this. There are plenty of perfectly good (and also some terrible) reasons why someone might not be computer literate, or comfortable with computers.
            None of that means that they are incapable of learning at least the basics. You might never be great at it, it might never feel natural or easy or fun, but you can learn if you try.

      2. pleaset cheap rolls*

        I don’t have a smartphone and have been on email for two decades. Actually on the internet before the world wide web existed.

        People can learn to use email. My elderly mom does. She can also, sort of, use a smartphone.

        If the person is literate for bureaucracy (written forms, etc), has appropriate eyesight and motor control (or special equipment), then can use email by actually trying. It might take some days, but they can.

        This is lack of will on this guy’s part. It’s on him. If it’s part of his job, he must start.

      3. Quill*

        Yeah, my granddad was exceptionally computer literate for his generation, email wasn’t a big thing until after he retired, but by the time smartphones rolled around they just weren’t useable for him in terms of eyesight, cost, and finger-to screen accuracy, especially when he had a circa 1994 desktop with a tractor printer.

        1. UKDancer*

          My grandmother (who would be 96 if she were still alive) was quite happy with email and the “Net thing” as she called it for her genealogy and church work. She never got a smart phone because she struggled with the finger to screen issue. Having learnt typing as a young woman her touch typing speed was better than mine but the smooth screen of a smartphone was too much of a struggle.

          My mother (who is now 70) also doesn’t like smart phones. She has one but it very rarely gets used. Some people just prefer buttons. My father who is the same vintage absolutely loves his iphone. People are all different.

      4. old curmudgeon*

        I am also in the “don’t have a smart phone” club, and I also have been an active, even prolific, email user both at work and in my personal life since the mid 1990s.

        Not having a smart phone is not equivalent to being dirt-poor. Nor is it synonymous with being illiterate or technologically ignorant. Some of us just don’t like telephones, and some of us have physical limitations that make using a tiny touch-screen difficult or impossible, but neither of those circumstances is in any way related to poverty or ignorance.

  3. Black Horse Dancing*

    If this person doesn’t usually use email, you need to step in and set up a plan. Many of our county employees don’t use work email because their jobs don’t require it. Think road maintenance, facilities maintenance, deputies, dispatch, detention workers, etc. They are not usually in office, so this doesn’t surprises me. Get a plan and ensure they have time to do the email check. It is hard to have road crew check email if they are 30/miles from the office.

    1. Danielle*

      Yes, but those departments still have Managers/Team Leads who are in an office most of the day. OR on site with a company smartphone that has email.

      And I would certainly hope police/emergency services would use email, as those jobs have a tremendous amount of paperwork and documentation. If they can learn to use whatever documentation software is necessary for their job, they can learn basic email too.

      1. Kuirky*

        My husband is a police officer and he checks his email. Granted, it’s not when he’s driving around, but he checks it when he’s in the office.

        1. Black Horse Dancing*

          Yes many do. I’m pointing out many employees don’t even have a work email. Many of our road crew don’t. The department head does but he is rarely in office. A lot can be set to the secretary but again, she had to wait until the crew is in the office which is early am and quitting time.

    2. Ana Gram*

      It’s very odd to me that your deputies, corrections officers, and dispatcher don’t use email. I’m a cop and I can’t imagine not having email. Heck, we’re all issued iPhones so we have access to email and other computer programs we need to do our jobs.

      1. Black Horse Dancing*

        The dispatchers are on computers all day but the email funnels through the department head. Detention officers are usually on transport/part time and don’t have work emails. Our road crew and facilities have department head email and that’s it.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I remember there was an update – and the guy was coping by making coworkers forward him emails to his family shared personal email account ( this kinda gobsmacked me so much I don’t remember the rest of the update).

    1. Rianwyn*

      That is probably why the last sentence in the post is “I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.”

      1. Edith*

        Removed. I’m no longer hosting debate on people’s feelings about my promoting my work on outside sites. You can read 30+ letters a week for free here. I am also going to promote my work for other publications. – Alison

  4. Princess Flying Hedgehog*

    The immediate supervisor is pushing for leniency because they don’t want to actually manage this poor-performing employee. The supervisor is also an issue here.

    1. Mockingjay*

      He’s got 17 years in and is cruising toward his 20 to retire. I’m guessing that the supervisor was probably going to let him slide for the next 3 years unless he commits an egregious error.

      The update posted below confirms that this agency/office had been slack on professional norms for quite some time, so it’s a systemic issue.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        On the one hand, it’s clear this employee kinda sucks in more than one way, not all related to the email business. On the other hand, the way the letter is all “88 emails!” when dude didn’t check it for 60 days immediately struck me as….actually this dude does not get a lot of email. It’s not an excuse for thinking you can just completely ignore it, especially if some of it is from the public and it’s his job to reply. But like, given the level of obvious irritation from the LW, I was expecting it to say something like 8000 emails. It almost undermines their point (or maybe just reinforces that there’s so obviously more going on) because if the number is that low, this guy probably could get away with checking email once or twice a week. Still not a great idea, but like… A) it makes me wonder why it took 2 months for anyone to notice he was just straight up ignoring it and B) if he wanted to barely touch it, seems like he could’ve almost gotten away with it if he’d put in 1/5 the actual effort necessary to really do this part of his job.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed – I forgot some of the other stuff that was apparently going on. I wonder how many other supervisors were not “supervising” there.

    2. jm*

      thanks for the link! as someone who spent 90 minutes trying to connect a client to social security and gave up after the third time they hung up on us, i wish all government and healthcare staff had a supervisor like this one. imagine having high standards for customer service. i’m crying.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        My favorite line is At this point I figured, my blood pressure is already through the roof, let’s burn the crops and salt the earth.

  5. Lucia Pacciola*

    I work for a large multinational corporation. I get hundreds of emails a day. Pretty much none of them require my attention, from a business/assigned duties perspective. If my boss needed me to use my inbox as part of my work process or as a communication channel for my assigned duties, they would absolutely need to sit down and tell me so explicitly.

    On a similar note, when I started here I was given a corporate phone number, but was never issued a desk phone. Two years later, I’ve never even gotten around to setting up voicemail. It’s just not a tool our team uses. Again, if my boss needed me to use it, he’d have to tell me explicitly.

    So I get where this guy is coming from. He never needed an email account to do his job before. By all appearances, he doesn’t need it now.

    I notice that the letter doesn’t say the employee is failing at his job because he’s not reading his emails. Nothing like, “customer complaints have gone up, and we discovered it’s because this guy isn’t reading his emails” or “last week he missed an important deadline, because he didn’t read the memo I emailed out to the team about it”.

    1. Temperance*

      This employee was explicitly told to read his emails, and that the office would be using email. He was given instructions on how to do so, and just … didn’t.

        1. Temperance*

          I just found the update, and he apparently had people printing off emails for him to read (lol) and just never got around to setting it up. lol lol lol lol

          1. Reba*

            I know there were a lot of other issues, but the idea of this person just being like, “You know what, email? No, nope, not feeling it” is so so so funny.

            1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              Gets worse because it was, “work email, moping out of that and gonna keep using my personal email for the things I need” which is probably against office policy and has so so many privacy concerns.

              1. L.H. Puttgrass*

                And he’s a government employee!

                Didn’t we have a presidential candidate get into trouble for something like that?

      1. Empress Matilda*

        Actually, I can see Lucia Pacciola’s point – it doesn’t look like his job performance has suffered due to his lack of email use. (Partly because it was terrible to begin with, of course!) OP mentions sharing information and training instructions via email, but maybe the employee doesn’t feel he needs this kind of information. It’s possible that he’s still doing his job the same way he has been for the past 17 years, and if it’s working for him – he hasn’t seen any negative consequences – then he probably doesn’t see the need to change.

        To be clear, the employee is 100% wrong in this, and OP is 100% right. Regardless of what he has done in the past, regardless of whether or not he personally feels like he needs to use email – his boss has made it clear that this is an expectation of the job as it is now, today. And if he’s not meeting that expectation for whatever reason, that’s a problem. But I can see why the employee would feel like everything is fine from his end.

        1. Ramona Q*

          “He currently has 88 emails in his inbox that have not been reviewed. Many are from me providing updates on our programs and activities. Others could certainly be from the public asking questions.” This, to me, indicates that his job performance definitely suffered – he’s actively avoiding accessing information that his job requires.

    2. Myrin*

      This came up in the comments when the letter was originally published as well and the answer remains the same: the employee is failing at his job because he’s not reading emails because OP, as his boss, has decided that he needs to read his emails, which is something that she, as his boss, gets to do.
      She also explained in the comments as well as a later update that “he was missing important information and updates on serious issues” and often only managed to get by because he had his coworkers print out their emails for him. The emails that he also received but refused to read.

    3. EventPlannerGal*

      “By all appearances, he doesn’t need it now.”

      I think that’s a big assumption. It’s possible that it very much is necessary but he has been constructing inefficient/annoying/slow workarounds like constantly bugging other people for information, which is not okay, or he’s been missing things at a persistent low-key level that has never risen to his grand-boss’s attention before this but is also not okay. It’s also just a really flagrant disregard for very clear instructions coming from the ‘top boss’ at his agency – you don’t get to just be like “nah, don’t feel like it” even if you think something is unneccessary.

      1. Temperance*

        Yeah he definitely did need it. He was apparently harassing colleagues into printing out emails for him to read in hard copy, lol lol lol.

        1. EventPlannerGal*

          Oh, god. Yes, that would do it. Of course he thinks he “doesn’t need” e-mail… because he can just make other people use it for him!

    4. BRR*

      I’m not going to argue that most (if not everyone who has every existed) receives too many pointless emails but checking email is such a common expectation to have, and was explicitly said by the LW, that it’s more of the exception than the rule to just ignore it.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      That’s the thing. The boss here is saying they need to use the email that’s been set up, so therefore there’s no excuse.

      I have had to “train” people who come from a background of no-emails to get into the habit of checking them. It’s okay to have a learning curve there in that case! But not everyone can get by without using email, even if it’s a new feature that is now being used.

      This is part of evolution of business. We used to use one standard email because setting up separate boxes had a lot of work behind it. Now tech has made it so that it’s pretty simple to setup a new email box and email client.

      Once upon a time, I only had to mail invoices to customers. Now I have to actually sign up for supplier portals and upload the damn things. Or there’s a very specific email address that’s used, send it anywhere else or send a paper copy and it’s literally just deleted/dumped. I don’t get a choice for certain entities. Things change drastically over the years upon years we are doing any given set of standardized tasks!

      I literally couldn’t do business with certain places if I didn’t follow their constantly changing and swirling rules and regulations.

    6. MCMonkeybean*

      You: “they would absolutely need to sit down and tell me so explicitly.”

      OP: “I have been completely clear about the need to have email access and the expectation that you use email for your job and that I am going to be sharing information via email.”

      How much more explicitly do you need??

  6. Aquawoman*

    There’s a scene from The IT Crowd where the help desk guy is on the phone and after a few instructions says “Are you from the past?” Which is what I was wondering when I read this letter and then got to the end and yes, it is from the past. But probably not the late 90s, which is about the last time that this letter would have made sense to me. So, I agree with no, not over-reacting to this guy just ignoring his email.

    1. Jaybeetee*

      This. In the present day, I can’t imagine any job involving a computer where you could get away with this. Even knowing it’s an older letter tho, it’s hard to imagine someone getting away with this even 10 years ago.

      1. Malarkey01*

        There are a lot of jobs where people are using shared computer terminals minimally and not receive work email correspondence. I think a lot of us in white collar desk jobs start to think in terms of our whole work day being tied to the computer and email, but there’s a host of jobs for which someone wouldn’t be receiving work email but may still occasionally be on a computer.

    2. Smithy*

      While I know that this letter is from the technical past – I do think that there’s a more genuine management reality in play around systems changes/upgrades. Particularly in industries like local government or nonprofits that often lag far behind more regular updates.

      My entire professional career, I’ve used Microsoft Outlook for email while having a personal Gmail account – my most recent job uses the Google platform and….I wish it was an easier transition. The moment of staring at my email while onboarding remotely and thinking “I don’t even know how to schedule a meeting….wtf…..” My last organization was in the process of making major changes to certain financial systems, and a huge part of the investment was in the cultural adoption to ensure that people didn’t develop workarounds more similar to the old systems.

      I’m not saying that particular story is a bit WTF, but resistance to new tech and managing that resistance is really quite common.

  7. Quickbeam*

    I’ve worked for government agencies off an on my entire career. I think I’ve had e-mail for, what? 25 years? My husband is a complete Luddite yet he handles e-mail at work all the time (gov’t agency).

    I agree he needs to be shown how to use it in an elementary step by step way and then supervised daily to make sure he’s on task.

    1. allathian*

      He uses his personal email, so that’s not the problem. He has other employees printing messages out for him. They should stop enabling this behavior, for a start.

  8. Jennifer*

    I’m honestly not as shocked by this as I was the first time I read it. Working from home for months has really opened my eyes to the number of people who seem to be technology-averse, 20 years into the 21st century. I think the people who would normally get up and come over to your desk to ask a question now insist on calling to ask questions that would take two minutes to answer over slack or email. Also there were people unable to work for days complaining their laptops weren’t working when really they just misread the instructions on how to set up their laptops. Much is being revealed, folks. Very much.

    1. Smithy*

      Completely agree – I started a new job during COVID that included making the shift from Microsoft Outlook to a Google email platform. And while yes, I regularly use email for work, have had a Gmail account, and can search online for general guides – I really wish I’d had access to an hour or two webinar course on “using Google Platforms at X Specific Workplace.”

      As a non-tech oriented person, figuring out all of that alone in addition to actual workplace specific software and systems….I can relate far more to that employee than I wish was the case.

      1. Chinook*

        For learning tech stuff, I was pointed to LinkedIn Learning (who bought I think they still have a one month trial which allows you to access all sorts of business skills
        courses. I have been using it fill in my Office knowledge for teaching (with plans to get certified), but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had Gmail platform tutorials on there.

        1. voluptuousfire*

          They have a Google suite platform. I’d wager there’s a Gmail one as well.

          For me, for years I used Windows computers and Office/Outlook for work. Then I moved over to a start-up and used a Mac and Gsuite then to another tech company and had been using the Mac/Gsuite ecosystems for 5 years. My current company is a large corp, so it’s back to Office/Outlook on the Mac laptop. It was a real bear relearning Outlook again.

  9. Miss Demeanor*

    Part of my job entails getting users (of various digital skills) to buy into software applications. I have developed a tremendous amount of patience and empathy over the years for analog natives, and always make it a point to meet the user where they are. With that caveat, I’d still be very annoyed if, after several clear communications, an employee unilaterally determined they didn’t need to use a mandatory system. It’s moved from “I’m uncomfortable with a system” (understandable) to “I’m above this” (irritating).

    I’m actually dealing with something similar right now, except the user is a) VERY savvy, and b) pretending they’re not by willfully misunderstanding clear directions from multiple people. I’m responding by ALSO playing dumb (“oh! Sorry that I didn’t do enough for you!”), continuing to provide clear instructions and making the training manuals accessible from multiple locations. I will prevail, dammit.

  10. Former Retail Manager*

    I totally feel the OP’s pain….I work for a large government agency with a range of employee ages, some who started when the job was done completely manually (I cannot imagine!) and who hate e-mail and do the bare minimum with anything computer/software related (think very basic spreadsheets, minimal e-mail contact, no use of instant messenger, requires assistance to book travel through the system we use etc.). This issue has cropped up from time to time over the years. I’m not a manager, so I didn’t have to deal with it firsthand, but I know about it because the e-mail haters told me themselves that they didn’t want to use it/check it.

    The solution was for the manager to tell them that they needed to check their e-mail no less than twice per day and respond to any actionable e-mails within 24 hours or the next business day. They were told that they don’t need to leave it open all day, if they don’t want to, but perhaps checking it first thing in the morning & about an hour before the end of the day would work for them.

    I also think it’s important to acknowledge that change is really difficult for some people and frankly, some people will never embrace change or technology, but to make it clear that it is a requirement for the job, and the minimum expected is X.

    1. Observer*

      You don’t need to”embrace” technology to actually check your email. Any more than you need to embrace technology to use post-its. Seriously.

      If the OP were expecting people to essentially live their work lives in email and construct all sorts of work flows around email that would be one thing. But reading your email once or twice a day, and responding as needed? That’s not “embrace” that’s just basic use.

      1. Former Retail Manager*

        Eh, I think what you or I consider embrace and what someone presumably much older considers embracing are two different things. I know many folks over 60 that can barely use e-mail and avoid doing anything online whenever possible. I agree that e-mail is pretty basic, but you can’t change how other people feel about it. If the employee is older and hates e-mail, well, they’ll probably never like it, but they still need to do it because it’s necessary for the position.

        1. SnappinTerrapin*

          I’m a bit over 60 myself. My Dad and I frequently communicate by email and text messages. (I have, on the other hand, told my children that I consider texting to be a technological step backwards, toward telegraphy, but that is a different issue.)

          Dad’s biggest adjustment to the newfangled technology was realizing that, unlike the teletype system he used back in the 60s, he can use lower case letters nowadays.

          He adjusted.

          Yes, with a high school education, he was transmitting his paperwork electronically back when I was learning to read and write. That was a bit more cutting edge then than it is now.

  11. Anon for this*

    I had to fire someone for not checking their work email for 7 months in spite of several warnings. It was a bewildering case (a competent, friendly, technologically well versed person). Their other co-supervisor eventually heard from the (former) employee and explained to me (with permission) that the employee had been unknowingly suffering from anxiety and ADHD. Every time they didn’t check for messages, the idea of checking for messages got more frightening. Once it had been more than a week, that was it. I hope the person has gotten treatment.

    1. sunny-dee*

      I have done this. I don’t think I have anything clinical, but when I get stressed or overwhelmed, I just … can’t deal with my email. It makes me scared and nervous. (Also text messages and phone calls.)

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        There’s a pretty low bar to things being “clinical”, honestly. It’s amazing how much low-level trouble we let ourselves live thru without investigating whether it can be mitigated. Kinda like someone who just drives really slowly if their car overheats, when they could be getting the water system checked for leaks instead.

        (And I say this as someone who failed a lot in the workplace because of undiagnosed adhd. I don’t mean I got fired a lot, I just mean I didn’t thrive or do my best work and I couldn’t understand what the problem was. The diagnosis means access to meds but also means I have a framework thru which to understand my reactions to things, which helps the anxiety side of things a lot.)

        1. Remaining Anon ATM*

          I wish your last sentence could be on a banner and flown around the globe. Understanding your diagnosis or diagnoses gives one a framework for recourse and a path forward. It allows one to have empathy for one self.

      2. Remaining Anon ATM*

        I do have things that are clinical (including ADHD, OCD, anxiety, but I am a very… freeform human being who dislikes structure so it just manifests in weird ways), and I also will step away from electronic communication when I am stressed or overwhelmed. Responding to offer solidarity. And if you’re interested, I can add what I do to manage this (if it’s relevant and helpful).

        1. anonymous 5*

          I am none of the above commentators but would be interested to hear more about what you do to manage the “step away from email when overwhelmed” because…yeah. Solidarity from here too. :)

          1. Remaining Anon ATM*

            To provide some perspective and context: I am a woman, fairly senior in position, salaried, and medicated for OCD but not ADHD. I am in an industry that is hurting as an effect of the pandemic but in a vital role within my org, so enjoy more stability than my colleagues. Nothing that I do is time-sensitive within the framework of “this is a matter of life or death” but there are things considered urgent. I wanted to lead with this preamble because it works for my situation. It may not work for others. That said, my tidbits are below (and the TLDR version is “keep lists. It’s okay to respond tomorrow. Invent a mini errand. Go for the easy wins because they can provide energy for emails. Pet a dog. Practice grounding exercises.”)

            1.) I keep a running list of all emails I need to respond to. The list is usually coded by level of urgency and the type of task it requires (which helps with timing). If I don’t have the energy to code it, I won’t. Because I am a chaotic human and structure goes against how I like things- but I know I need it. Some emails I will put on tomorrow’s list, depending on who sent it. They are all marked as read so my inbox isn’t scary.
            2.) I then leave my workspace for a minor errand in my house. It is usually just getting a piece of fruit and a cup of tea.
            3.) I go back to my desk and do busy work that will give me an easy win, while something plays in the background to distract my ADHD brain. Usually, getting a win shifts the anxiety from “oh gosh, you are overwhelmed” to “hey, it’s not so bad! you got this!”
            4.) If step 3 works, I will ease back into the emails, doing a few at a time, then alternating with some non-work self care, such as petting my dog. If step 3 doesn’t work and I’ve entered JUST CAN’T territory, I will find a non-work task that grounds me. I am a textile artist, so touch is very nice. I will pick up my (whatever craft) and noodle. After I feel grounded and re-energized, I try to look at my emails. If I get that NO feeling, I’ll attempt the busy work win again.

      3. Grapey*

        If it’s severe enough to impact your work/personal life/thoughts, you have my permission to consider it “clinical” and seek help!

      4. virago*

        Me too.

        What really makes me nervous is that we have *so* many ways to communicate with each other, but we can still wind up not reaching each other.

        Case in point: My boss tried to contact me the other day about an important change I needed to make to a story that I was editing and was about to post online.

        When he called, I was putting out the garbage and my cat had followed me out the door. So while I was literally herding a cat, I got 1) a voicemail on my work phone; 2) an email; 3) a message via Zoom’s chat feature; 4) a text on my personal cellphone; 5) a voicemail on my personal cellphone.

        I saw all the messages and I thought the company was announcing layoffs. For real.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          Yea… where can I get a job where I can check email only quarterly and not get fired?

    1. Tricksieses*

      Right? I read the headline and had a pang of envy at somehow getting away with not checking email for months…then had further envy when I saw that it was 88 emails.

  12. Lizzo*

    Alison, echoing other comments from other posts about the video ads: some of them have audio that starts playing automatically and it is VERY loud. (The 3M ad is one of them.) I understand the need for ads, but…

    1. Grapey*

      Echoing Alison’s reply to some of those other commenters – there is a “report ad issue” link directly above where you type in a comment that will bring you to Alison’s preferred place to report ad/tech issues.

    2. Sylvan*

      They also reappear after I close them. This happens with different ads, not one specific one. The video ad situation isn’t great.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        She’s said before she’s not going to see it if you post it here. Use the button to ensure she actually sees the message about the issue.

  13. Former Retail Lifer*

    OK, but if it took you 60 days to notice that he didn’t check his email, is this all on him?

    Yes, he should have logged in and asked for help if he couldn’t figure it out, but he got away with it for two months so he may have thought it didn’t matter that much. It’s appalling to those of us that check our work email constantly, myself included, but take a step bacl. If he never used it before without any consequences then I’d help him log in, give him a warning that he needs to check it X amount of times per day and respond within X amount of hours or days, and take action from there.

    1. Temperance*

      Read the update. He had gotten around it because he had coworkers print things for him and he’d been using his personal email (!) for government purposes (!!). He had instructions on how to do this, and just never bothered. He has a personal email, he was fully capable and just didn’t.

      1. Former Retail Lifer*

        Don’t get me wrong: he sounds awful. I’m just saying if this issue was allowed to go on for two months unchecked, he’s owed a chance to correct it. But just one chance.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          That’s pretty extreme hand holding behavior. Most places aren’t going to look into regularly if you’re checking emails. It indeed usually takes awhile to figure this kind of thing out because again, it’s not normal to be all “Is Craig checking his emails? Let’s make sure he is!”

          It’s usually safe to assume that standard things like email is being done, you only notice it when you stumble onto a situation where you start to question if they’re ignoring you or what.

          By treating people like children, they will learn to expect it and not have the instinct to do things without a nudge from Parent boss.

          1. EventPlannerGal*

            This. OP is also the head of this agency and at least this person’s grand-boss, if not further removed – my grand-boss is not asking me whether I am checking my email. I think it’s totally possible for this to have been causing many problems without it having risen to OP’s attention earlier, rather than it simply not having caused any.

        2. Observer*

          Also, keep in mind that his direct manager was pretty much shielding him. It’s not that there was no impact but that the manager was obfuscating the problem.

          You can see part of the problem in the letter . But read the update – you’re head just might explode.

      2. Lala*

        “he’d been using his personal email (!) for government purposes (!!).”

        This is very very common in local government.

        I’m not denying it is bad practice. But it is very common.

  14. OyHiOh*

    I work for a quasi government organization in a corner of the US that lags far, far behind many parts of the country in tech access and use. In many places, access to a reliable network is as much of an issue as persuading people to use technology. I am very much of the mindset that while tech will not and cannot solve all our problems, if it can improve a process or streamline communication, we should use it.

    Our state has universal mail in voting and part of the transition to that was requiring every county to have one functional email address to use in reporting ballot counts. There are multiple counties in my corner of the state where the entire body of elected officials can only be contacted electronically through the one email address the state required them to set up, seven years ago. And I’m not convinced the county clerk is checking that email more than once a month or so. It is enormously frustrating for many reasons!

    1. Black Horse Dancing*

      Our locals often call county admin and leave messages. We then tell the county offical the message, Many of our people have no internet.

    2. SnappinTerrapin*

      I’ve lived over half my life in rural areas, so I get your point. Technology spreads unevenly. This was true of electricity and telephones when my parents were growing up. I can remember one grandfather rejecting home phone service because he didn’t like the attitude of the folks who had the monopoly. I also remember them replacing the outhouse with indoor facilities.

      But when the employer provides the tools and says using them is part of the job, that’s a different situation from not having access.

    1. Ally McBeal*

      Seriously! At my last job (in finance) I went away for a weeklong vacation and made a bet with myself that I would get 1000 emails by the last day, and totally nailed that estimate. I didn’t check any of them, just kept watching the number in the little bubble on my iPhone go up and up. Most of them weren’t action items specifically for me, but going through 1000 emails still takes up a lot of time.

      At my current job I get about 50-60 emails a day when I’m OOO, that number is of course higher when I’m in the office and actively responding to stuff. That’s probably inflated somewhat from what I got in the Before Times – working from home has increased email traffic – but not by a lot.

  15. Dandy it is*

    I was gobsmacked when a report left for WFH due Covid closures and did not know how to check his voicemail from out of the office. He has worked at the company for 6 years and travels for work as part of his role!
    Fortunately, we don’t get many phone calls but it really makes me question his judgement. It only came up because I reminded him about checking his voicemail.

  16. CurrentlyBill*

    This guy should definitely be reading and responding to email, but there are things the OP can/should do as well.

    The first issue is the OP is just assuming a general office norm — that you use email. But there are no specific standards to back that up. I’m not always a fan of new rules or policies, but there is value in defining expectations.

    “All employees are responsible for content in their voicemail, email, and corporate IM inboxes. It is expected that employees will have read/listened to/reviewed their messages within:

    Text message: 1 Business hour
    IM: 2 business hours
    Voicemail: 4 business hour
    Email: 1 business day

    Employees are expected to respond to those messages within those same time frames.”

    Or something like that. Define the norm and hold people accountable.

    Second, you may need to clarify the benefit to him. He needs to understand why/how email is important to his job. At one level, “The boss says so” only goes so far. If you can’t articulate why doing email will get him better results and drive the results the organization needs, then maybe he doesn’t need email.

    In other words, define the organizational benefit, define the standard, enforce the standard

    1. Myrin*

      Funny you should mention that – and I’m not being sarcastic, I really mean it – because if you check OP’s update on this letter, she actually attached a full-fledged “manifesto”, as she cheekily called it, spelling out exactly what you write and so much more!

    2. Observer*

      Second, you may need to clarify the benefit to him. He needs to understand why/how email is important to his job. At one level, “The boss says so” only goes so far. If you can’t articulate why doing email will get him better results and drive the results the organization needs, then maybe he doesn’t need email.

      No. If the boss says he needs to check email, he needs to check email.

      As it happens, the OP DID outline why he needs to check his email. He just didn’t want to. The fact that the employee doesn’t feel like he’s getting any benefit from checking email doesn’t mean that it is anything close to ok for him not to check. Nor does it mean that he doesn’t need email.

    3. EventPlannerGal*

      I think that part of operating in the world of work is figuring out which situations are “boss says so” and which are “boss needs to explain to me why this will be of value to me and the organisation before I will consider it”. In 2020, or indeed in 2016 when this letter was written, checking your work email once a day is not something your employer should need to sell you on.

    4. LGC*

      I kind of agree that this is helpful, but…aside from OP doing precisely that in the update, sometimes managers ask employees to do things because it makes things easier for them. You’re right that framing it as a benefit to the employee or the company is ideal, but honestly that’s not always the primary reason. (I mean, ask me about getting my team to file things electronically because I’m trying to reduce the amount of paper I deal with.)

      Specific to this, though, it seemed like the employee was kind of public-facing anyway, so he was being given an additional avenue of communication.

    1. D3*

      Oh for the love. You’ve gone over the number of free articles. Which means no, you need to pay. That is how Alison (and the other authors) get paid for their work.

    2. SnappinTerrapin*

      Well, there is a link upstream to the update post. It seems likely that the update post has a link to the original post.

      But if you want to read the magazine article and have used up your freebies, you will need to subscribe.

      Alison provides plenty of free content to read. Don’t begrudge her a little pay for her work.

  17. DanniellaBee*

    If this is a government employee you cannot fire them over this. You would need to create a clear paper trail of performance issues and written warning. With government you need to document EVERYTHING. Because this is government and this person has been at their job 17 years I would be curious to know how close they are to retirement. That could be part of why you are seeing such low performance from them. I think in any case, this manager needs to take specific steps to document the issues and work with the employee on them. If their direct manager is not doing this, that is a problem with that manager as well.

  18. Failing Up*

    I work for a local government agency horribly behind in the tech world. This email could have been written from my agency. Not just the lack of email use, but this:

    “I have an employee who has been here for 17 years and is mediocre in his performance. He does his job and does okay, but isn’t always a part of the team or as polite to the public as I would like.”

    This describes a lot of our employees. Local government has traditionally favored tenure above all else…some of these employees fail upwards into management!

    1. LizM*

      I’ve worked for the feds for over a decade, and a large part of my job now is working with local governments, and Ron Swanson was absolutely a realistic character.

  19. Ally McBeal*

    This reminds me of a guy I worked with, and later managed, in my work-study job in college. We worked in an office that sold tickets to events. Fergus and I started the job at the same time (fall semester) using a UNIX-based ticketing software program for fall and spring, and when we came back the following year, our managers had used the summer to switch to a Windows-based program. They trained us, and promoted me to student manager a few weeks later because I was reliable and had picked up the program quickly.

    Fergus never learned the new program. He spent the entire two semesters somehow avoiding selling tickets – in an office that primarily sold tickets! – and nothing I said to our managers could convince them to force Fergus to actually do his job. I finally just ignored him and always had an extra student staffed on his shifts. He literally sat in the back and read his Bible with headphones on (and liked to pick fights with me because apparently Catholics aren’t Christian enough for him, but that’s neither here nor there), and got paid with federal money to do it. Sometimes he would answer the phone, but the only people who called were people who needed tickets, so he would take down their information and put it in the missed-call log like it had gone to voicemail, for someone else to deal with later. Drove me insane, but at least he got a different job after that semester.

  20. LizM*

    I had a coworker a few years ago who told me he didn’t “do” email. He wanted me to call him personally every time I sent an email out to our working group to explain it to him.

    I replied (with his supervisor copied) that there were over 20 people in the working group, and I didn’t have time to tailor call each individual, and email was the most efficient way to get the info out, and that’s what I was going to do unless instructed differently by leadership.

    It was probably more passive aggressive than I needed to be, but I definitely put important deadlines in the emails and didn’t follow up with the employee even when I was pretty sure he was going to miss them. After a couple key deadlines were missed by his unit, upper management got involved, he got pulled off the project and he and his supervisor both left the agency shortly after that. Normally, I’d be more accommodating to team members’ individual styles, but this wasn’t the only example of this person treating me more like an admin assistant than a project lead.

    1. LizM*

      And no disrespect to administrative professionals. They keep my office running. But that was not my job at the time, and I know this individual didn’t ask the male team leads to make copies of his presentation, book meeting rooms for meetings he was supposed to be organizing, etc.

      1. Grapey*

        Ugh I get it. I develop and train users on software tools and some peers get salty over my lack of training new hires on what specialized business workflows their managers wrote.

        e.g. say I train users on google calendar. I will show them how to set up recurring meetings. I won’t ‘train’ new llama project managers on what recurring meetings they are expected to set up with llama logistics and what their agendas should be.

      2. Observer*

        Sure, because the male team leads were Ledership(tM) and you were Gal Friday who had gotten too uppity. At least in HIS head.

        What I would really like to know is why his MANAGER allowed this to go on. I mean ONE missed deadline is one thing. But after that, his manager should have pulled him up short and told him that he needed to get his act together.

    2. EmmaPoet*

      Yikes. I’m willing to be helpful, but I am not going to call someone every time I send an email and spoon-feed it to him. That’s ridiculous, and I’m glad you pushed back.

  21. Perfectly Cromulent Name*

    I’m mostly impressed that he only had 88 emails after not checking for MONTHS! I get that in a day sometimes. Not every day, but it’s not uncommon!

  22. NW Planner*

    I am a small government employee and if he has been there 17+ years with mediocre work, he is not going to improve. In this day and age, email is not a new concept – so he has been allowed to play the “i’m not very techie,” and then he doesn’t have to do parts of his job. Others will pick up the slack, so unless someone follows through on writeups, he will be there until he retires. We had an employee who did near nothing her last 5 years, because they didn’t want to fire an long-term employee and she conveniently never learned any of the new software programs.

  23. jenny*

    While I agree with AAM’s response I’d also say if your boss can’t tell your work performance is suffering when you read none of their emails, maybe their emails aren’t that informative!

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Well, if you have a work around that involves getting your co-workers who do bother to print out emails for you, and continue to use your personal email for the things that just have to go through email – yeah you can probably skate by at mediocre level (which sounds like was this person’s default anyways, so no major difference?).

      Sounded like the immediate supervisor was also possibly shielding them – so Grandboss (which is OP) didn’t notice till it had gone on for a while.

  24. Sun Tzu*

    His immediate supervisor is pushing for leniency because in the past this employee hasn’t had a work email account, and may not understand that checking email at least once a day should be standard practice.

    Um, e-mail has been around and available to the general public for a quarter of a century now. It’s not like we’re talking about some niche technology that went out six months ago…

  25. B Wayne*

    This reminds me of the letter last week (or two weeks ago) from a person working a government job and was afraid to leave the security of a job for life with the government (strong unions and, well, government employees just don’t get fired) and go out in the private sector to make double the m0ney. Why should this luddite employee be worried? The manager can complain about how this employee isn’t electronically hip but nothing will “improve”. The employee has settled into the minimum to get by, selectively doing what he wants to and he will be protected by the union and the general job ethic of government employment.

  26. Foxgloves*

    I think my biggest reaction to this was “only 88 emails in 60 days? That sounds SO nice!!”. I may be fixation on the wrong thing, though…

  27. Chickaletta*

    This isn’t just about an older employee navigating new technology, this is about an employee who has blatantly ignored directions multiple times. He’s been told to read his email. He’s been told to read specific emails that were sent out. He has made a conscious decision not to do that, and to not even try. Just because it’s a new technology for him does not mean he can ignore it.

    Plus, it’s 2020 for god’s sake. Most senior citizens by now can navigate basic email. (Hell, some of them developed the original code). This employee needs to get on board or get let go.

    1. EmmaPoet*

      My 80-something father does scientific computer modeling. He helped create the program in his 70s. He comes from the day when telegrams were still delivered by hand. I am not impressed with Fergus- especially because it mentions in the update that he had personal email, so it’s clear he just decided he didn’t want to do part of his job.

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