my colleague’s auto-reply says she might never answer your email

A reader writes:

Two months ago, a colleague introduced me to a colleague/competitor at a similar organization to mine. We were trying to figure out if there was merit in working together on a project or not, combining our skills. In the first email, I received an auto-response saying that they might not respond because of the large volume of email they receive and because they are very busy. There was no indication of this auto-response being temporary (no “this week is the annual llama shearing festival, hence my replies will be slower than normal”) and no other person mentioned to approach instead (no “if you are looking for advice on llama diets, please contact Bernice instead”).

I found it a bit strange and was wondering if this is acceptable/normal or not. I mean, I accepted it, I guess. They got back to me straight away (the third person had given a heads-up and there was a tight deadline for sending project proposals to the funder), and we are collaborating now. But that first response left me wondering if I could count on their input on the project bid, given that they had signaled they were so busy (busy enough for the auto-response).

They are of a similar level to my team leader, at a smaller organization, so not the author of a best-selling book expecting hundreds of fan mails. To me it comes across as not being able to manage the communications that come with the job properly. We are all busy in our field, so why make yourself the exception? (Again, no specific reason apart from being busy was given, not even COVID.) I would not like my employees to use such a generic “I am busy” auto-reply, but am I too judgmental?

It’s a weird email, but it’s impossible to say for sure if it’s inappropriate without knowing more about the work she does.

For example, if she’s in a role where she gets hundreds of emails a day that her organization doesn’t expect her to answer (comments from the public, say, or requests for free products that they won’t accommodate), I could see her landing on an auto-response like that. It’s not ideal since it’ll put off people with legitimate business with her, like you … and really, if that were the situation, why not just set up a different email address for those requests? (Although in fairness, that’s not always foolproof.) And the wording of the email itself isn’t great — it would be better to use language like “if you’re writing to request X or Y, the volume of requests we receive mean we’re not able to respond to all of them” or some other wording that’s more nuanced than “I’m busy and might not answer you.”

In other words, who knows what’s going on that might make that kind of auto-reply make sense.

(Full disclosure, my Ask a Manager email address has an auto-reply that says I might not respond because of the volume of mail I receive. But that’s an email account used for a very specific purpose; it’s not my main account.)

This kind of auto-reply is sometimes mentioned as a “productivity hack” — the idea being that if your auto-reply warns people you might not reply, you can ignore emails more freely and without guilt. It’s always seemed sketchy to me for exactly the reasons you cite — it’ll go to people who reasonably should expect responses from you and will make them wonder if it’s a reliable method of communication for you or do they need to call instead and how long should they wait before concluding you’ll never get back to them.

And then there’s the “yeah, I’m busy too and I still answer my email” mental response that a lot of people will have.

Like you, I wouldn’t want my employees using this kind of auto-reply. I would be okay with other solutions like:
* Different email address for different kinds of messages, to separate out the people for whom a “we may not respond” auto-reply makes sense.
* A more informative auto-reply — “Please note we’re not able to respond to requests for X,” etc.
* Liberal use of form emails to quickly field a bunch of emails. (Really, anyone who gets a ton of email should have form responses set up.)

But yes, “I might not respond because I’m very busy” isn’t great.

{ 144 comments… read them below }

  1. TimeTravlR*

    One of the divisions of our organization has a bounce back that says someone will be in touch within three business days. I am very put off by this and would have them stop doing it if it were up to me.
    At the very least there should be a “If this is urgent, please contact…” information added.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      Why are you put off by it? Is it an organization that sometimes has do deal with things that need a faster turnaround time?

    2. I'm A Little Teapot*

      Except that chances are a lot of people will think their thing is urgent and that person is going to get deluged, which defeats the point of the controlled mailbox. And their thing is mostly likely NOT urgent. Or if it is, it’s only urgent because of their lack of planning.

    3. Lil*

      I once worked in an understaffed organization where I would get about 50 email requests a day (that take at least 30 mins each to complete) when email requests only made up 10% of my job. And yes, every client considered their request “urgent”, so in certain situations, 3 day turnaround time is just the reality.

      1. drum songs*

        Outlook allows splitting internal vs external OOOs, so the internal folks could get another contact person, while the external folks wait 3 days.

        1. Lil*

          That didn’t apply to my situation, all the emails I was receiving were external client emails that needed to be dealt with. But being understaffed, it was a 3 day turnaround time. The fact that that is “off putting” is irrelevant since that was the reality of the situation, and putting that auto reply is setting realistic expectations.

      2. MassMatt*

        I don’t understand the logic here. If more emails are coming in than you can handle, taking more time to respond isn’t keeping up with the work. In 3 days you have 150 emails.

        And… If all these emails take 30 minutes each to complete (minimum), that’s 25 hours a day you’d need to spend on the emails. Which you say is 10% of your job? Are you working 250 hours per day? Now THAT is understaffed!

        1. Lil*

          Tell me about it. We would have lulls here and there where the requests died down (mostly holidays and other random times when most clients were busy with other things) where I was able to “catch up” with a good amount of backlog. I didn’t even last a year and unsurprisingly, they shut their doors 2 years after I quit. I’m shocked they even made it that long.

    4. Renata Ricotta*

      I wouldn’t love this either, but I think it’s a far sight better than the autoreply in the OP because there’s a definitive timeline so I can investigate alternatives if a 3-day turnaround is not going to work for me.

      In the OP’s case, if I have no idea whether my email is the type of request that gets answered, on day 2 (or 4, or 12) I have no idea whether I need to write it off as a lost cause and find an alternative, or if the answer is still forthcoming. And I may have wasted a bunch of time not knowing one way or another.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yep. I work in a professional services industry, and some of our non-client-facing departments don’t seem to understand (even if you state it directly) that when a client-facing person needs their help, it’s in service to a client request, which typically needs to be handled very quickly. If I had to tell a client it was going to take three days for an internal department to even respond, we’d look inefficient and like we couldn’t coordinate a picnic, much less a multimillion dollar project.

      I’m sure this is very industry-dependent, but I can think of a dozen principals/directors right off the top of my head who would not take kindly to such an autoreply (nor the one in the letter) because of the perception issues.

      1. allathian*

        This is true, but presumably any sensible organization would ensure enough staffing for departments that serve client-facing functions, if not, they have only themselves to blame for long turnaround times. I serve only internal clients, but some of those are client-facing and some of the projects I’m responsible for have statutory deadlines. Those get top priority and override pretty much every other request, including requests from the c-suite.

    6. LizM*

      The problem with the “if this is urgent…” is that some people think their request is always urgent, and this system lets them jump to the front of the line, while people who have the same request and are willing to wait get pushed further back in the queue. If it takes 3 days to respond, it takes 3 days to respond. If an organization isn’t okay with that timeframe, they should hire more people.

      1. Rey is my bae*

        I’d like to note that, having worked in several industries, you can usually manage client expectations too. For example, in finance, certain things have to be done on certain times (eg X part 1, 24 hours, X part 2, 24 hours, X part 3, 24 hours = 72 hours, and client facing colleagues could justify it based on legitimate processes), and there’s many cases where something might take a few days and it’s Not A Big Deal to say “ok so X person who handles Y is currently handling A, B, and C so they’ll likely need Z amount of tome, but I can call you in D number of days with an update”. Obviously this is wildly subjective (eg imagine going to the emergency room and being told that you can’t get your arm x-rayed for 3 days, nah, not ok, but having to wait for 2 weeks for a generic non-emergent appointment with your family doctor to renew your birth control subscription that you don’t need for 3 weeks isn’t comparable). Get what I’m saying? Obviously my examples aren’t the same…. But I’m just trying to demonstrate that having a number of days of turn around time isn’t Inherently problematic.

    7. Prof. Murph*

      I used to have a colleague who was always *JUST SO BUSY*. It really irritated me because there were many of us in the same position and no particular reason why she should be any busier than the rest of us. There was some sort of implicit message that she was somehow working harder or her work was somehow more important than what the rest of us were doing. So on some level, I get why the auto-reply message rubbed the LW the wrong way.

      1. cabbagepants*

        If someone tells you that they are too busy to help you, I think that the obvious implication is that they are working on things that are more important than your thing. It can be very irritating to hear from peers (but completely reasonable for, say, people senior to you).

      2. MassMatt*

        I’ve worked with a bunch of people like this over the years. None of them were ever stellar workers that accomplished a lot.

        I think some of them talked up their busyness to make themselves look busier or more important, but most of them were just very disorganized.

        I remember one person whining about how busy they were all day and whenever I walked by her desk she was playing games. What, minimizing Minesweeper and solitaire is too much for you?

    8. Quiet Liberal*

      Years ago, I got an email response from a partner company that said something like “…..I am participating in email quiet time from 10:00 A.M. Tuesdays through 10:00 A.M. Thursdays and will not respond until my quiet time ends.” At the time, I wondered if their boss knew they had that auto reply on. Maybe. I never got it again.

  2. Bex*

    I wonder if they have a public facing role, and use that auto reply for all outside senders until/unless they’re added to an address book.

    Someone I work with has something similar, because a function of their role frequently has members of the public pulling their name and contact info for all sorts of items unrelated. But. Their reply does give a few general redirects.

    1. Myrin*

      I doubt it. OP says that this person does similar work to her team leader at a similar but smaller organisation to OP’s own so she’d probably be able to gauge if that were the case.

      1. JSPA*

        A lot more people think they know what the job entails than actually have a grasp. That’s been true for people thinking they know my job (regardless of the job) and I’ve been slapped upside the head by mis-assuming about the jobs of other people, too.

        Even two identical cakes can be sliced up differently.

    2. Rey is my bae*

      Plus phones exist? So if you clearly need to communicate with someone you can pick it up and be like “yo I need a response”. I also feel like phone calls help people think through whether they *really* need to be bothering someone (this won’t stop everyone). Tbh though, I feel like just an auto-send email thing that says you might not answer is sooooo obnoxious, even if it’s true the optics of it look bad and make it look like your staff is so wildly overwhelmed or that your Org is so understaffed that they simply cannot and we things. It’s one thing to take 3 days or even a week… but to just state not to expect an answer? It’s weird. It sets up an expectation that people who might have legitimate things to be Addressed are stuck.

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        To an external customer, the obvious message most likely to be received is “You need to find another source to meet your needs.”

    3. Koalafied*

      My situation is a bit like this. I’m the only person at my organization covering a very broad internal operations area. 100% of my work is internal-facing and I get loads of cold sales emails from vendors who want to sell my organization a product that’s in some way related to the type of internal work I do. Outlook lets you send a different OOO to people inside my organization vs outside my organization, so when I go on vacation my internal OOO is, “I will be away X dates. On X-Y dates I will check email twice daily and respond to any urgent inquiries, During period Z I will be reachable only by phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX. If you need assistance with production before I return, please contact Grayson. For help with sales, please contact Kapson and Rhondson. For all other inquiries, I’ll return your message when I’m back in the office on X/XX. If you need assistance before then, please contact Hudson to determine how to proceed.”

      My external OOO, on the other hand, is just, “I will be out of the office from X/XX to X/XX and will review your message on my return.” My bosses couldn’t care less whether I respond to the only kind of email I ever get from outside my organization: cold sales pitches. I’m not going to commit to replying by any particular time when I’m not obligated to reply at all. And I’m definitely not going to give out my colleagues’ email address in my OOO so they can get spammed, too.

      Of course, even my message still doesn’t say outright that I may never reply to you. It just doesn’t promise that I will.

  3. katertot*

    I worked with someone who 100% of the time had an auto reply stating they were “Off site” and would return their email when they were back in their office- but the issue was that their role meant they were at this other site (Off site) all the time. Which meant they didn’t respond to email their turn-around was two weeks for one email. It drove me crazy. Picture working between two locations and that was your permanent schedule and saying that you wouldn’t respond if you were at one of the two locations- even though you were at a desk, in meetings, basically doing the same thing at both locations. The auto reply used to drive me crazy because it seemed like an excuse for her not responding to emails by acting like she was constantly out of pocket when in fact, she wasn’t.

    1. katertot*

      Edit- apologies- meant to say “Which meant they didn’t respond to emails in a timely manner; their turn-around was two weeks at times”

  4. I'm A Little Teapot*

    Since LW was attempting to determine if a business relationship made sense, I would probably conclude that it didn’t. And would send a politely worded email back with the gist of “I understand you’re too busy to add anything to your workload, so we won’t be working together on this”.

    Consequences are wonderful things for correcting poor behavior.

    1. Daffy Duck*

      Yes, I would worry this person doesn’t tend to respond in a timely manner and the email reply is her “excuse” for not getting back to people.
      I would also wonder if she set the response at an earlier (very busy) time and forgot about the specific wording. Either way, it would be a yellow flag for me.

    2. wordswords*

      Wow, that’s an escalation! I’m not saying it’s never warranted, but it does seem to me to be reacting to one admittedly off-putting autoreply by decisively burning a professional bridge (plus maybe a second, since a colleague made this connection for the OP).

      1. Malarkey01*

        Agreed. I would ask a few questions to find out the best form of communication and dig in to her availability if I was worried about collaborating. I’d probably even say I was curious by her auto response and ask if she received a ton of email volume, etc, but I wouldn’t jump into assumptions and cut the relationship so overtly. That seems like wanting to punish someone for what you’ve deemed bad behavior without any details.

        1. allathian*

          Agreed. Declining to collaborate on a project because of a poorly-worded autoreply is a bit extreme. As usual, clear communication about the expectations on both sides for going forward is crucial.

    3. Guesty*

      That might be a little harsh for this LW, but if there’s any chance that the colleague isn’t intentionally driving people away, I kind of hope that someone can give them a heads up about how this comes off. I do think that having that kind of reply as a first impression is costing this person work, whether they know it or not. If they have other options, most people wouldn’t be okay dealing with someone who just casually lets them know that they may ignore them. In a lot of industries, that would really damage a person’s reputation.

      1. Lady Heather*

        You could potentially frame it as a question – “Am I to understand from your autoreply that you have too much on our plate to be able to do the project?” Then they can say yes or no but maybe it’ll make them think.

        I’m not always good at figuring out tone, though.

    4. Colleague’s Dog’s Viking Funeral*

      I also think the email OP received was not worded well, and I’m really surprised a manager at some level hasn’t suggested toned down text.
      I can manage expectations with a bit of tact and finesse. If you can’t, then that tells me a lot.

    5. Alice*

      I’m not as busy as the person in OP’s story, but I am too busy to take on the role of actively providing “consequences” for poor behavior by people who work outside my organization.

      1. Roci*

        I don’t think it would need to be active–just the natural consequence of telling everyone “I’m too busy to work with you” is that people will conclude you’re too busy to work with them and move on.

    6. JessicaTate*

      Yeah, I might not immediately give that strong of a response, but I’d be very wary of partnering with this person/company. I find that message extremely off-putting (unless it’s one of those really odd situations Alison describes… and even then, it’s been poorly executed, which is at least mildly off-putting). And if we were partnering on work, tying our reputations together, I suddenly have a stake in how we come across to a funder.

      Since it sounds like you all moved ahead, if we were to get the work, I would plan to have an early and frank conversation with this person about “What is the deal with your auto-reply?” I’d try to at least get them to put in some kind of exception for anyone from my company’s domain or the Funder’s domain not to get this message, or change the wording or SOMETHING. Because… it’s just not a good look.

      1. Letter Writer*

        Yes, we partnered in the end because basically they are the experts llama grooming and we are the experts on llama diets and this one project called for exaclty that combination. It would have been really hard to find another fit (on paper at least) that would lead to a winning proposal, and we expect the project to come with some benefits in the longer term (a good thing to be able to put on our experience list). It’s a small field. There’s also a llama manicurist we’ve worked well with in the past involved who recommended them (I left that out for lenght).

        When we talked about our impressions in our own, we managed our expectations from the collaboration. I have not talked to them about it as I don’t know them well enough (whereas in our team I have told colleagues in the past in a 360 to stop complaining they were so busy all the time without looking for sollutions)

        1. JessicaTate*

          I’m so glad it worked out, in the end. It sounds like your team is great! I do understand the need for collaboration to get the funding and the track-record in a small field – and sometimes that means working with not-great collaborators, where you have to work around them to get where you need to go. (I might be in one of those situations right now, as a matter of fact…) And my tough talk response didn’t reflect that it depends on the relationship and power dynamics whether you can have that frank of a chat. But to your point, you need to find a way to manage the relationship, even if it’s internal to your team, when you get the signal that someone’s going to be difficult to work with. (And my guess is that the autoreply was the tip of the iceberg.)

    7. LGC*

      …that’s a bit harsh, IMO! A reply like that would come across as overly hostile (or at least passive aggressive). Plus, from the letter, the colleague did get back to LW in a timely manner, so it’d have been for nothing.

      Don’t bring a flamethrower when a match will do just fine. (And, to be honest, when other people may be better equipped to light the flame.)

    8. Nope.*

      That’s … a pretty overblown reaction and one that would make me not want to work with you, honestly.

  5. Dahlia*

    Since it mentions books, I’ll say that this is fairly common with agents in publishing. When you query, for instance, you get a LOT of no-response-means-no.

    1. Letter writer*

      Hiya, it was not in the publishing field. Basically, they’re a smaller company that does almost the same we do, and I would never expect such a response from our team leader.

    2. lunchtime caller*

      That’s really not the same thing though, I think–someone reaching out to another agent professionally is going to email their main work address, not their query address, and if they do have to use the latter for whatever reason they’ll understand very well that the volume/intended audience of the auto reply is why it exists. (Which is the kind of set up Alison recommends! A specific inbox only for emails that it makes sense to send that to.)

  6. Always Late to the Party*

    I’ve seen faculty do this. Ironically, the ones that are conscious enough to put up the auto-responder tend to be the people who actually respond to my emails, whereas others you can follow up 10 times and they never reply.

    1. Charlotte*

      Yeah, I was going to say, I’ve seen faculty do this too–generally people who are high up enough that they’re unlikely to face pushback. One in particular ends with ‘Please consider whether an email is necessary before sending,’ which makes me eye-roll a bit, but what can you do.

      1. Koalafied*

        LOL @ “please consider before sending” in the bounceback to a message that has…already been sent!

    2. HailRobonia*

      I’ve seen an occasional gem-of-a-professor who writes something like “if you are one of my students or lab members and I do not reply within X, your email may have gotten buries in my inbox and don’t be shy about following up with a reminder.”

  7. IT Relationship Manager*

    It does seem incredibly rude. I have personally had my email be one that customers would send in requests to and that wasn’t ideal. Alison is spot on, if it is because they are being sent a lot of mail that doesn’t have high expectations of response, like a suggestion box, they really need to segregate email addresses with different purposes. If it isn’t then why do they receive so much mail that they can’t reply? We all get emails that are more informational and do not expect a response but that doesn’t add as much to the load as emails where a response is needed and it doesn’t require to have such a rude auto reply.

    If I am relying on this person to respond to me so that I can do my job, I would be frustrated. What does their boss say when they get that auto reply to their inquiries?

    1. Ashley*

      And for all those informational emails that aren’t actually helpful, unsubscribe is your friend. It will really help cut down on the number of emails that don’t apply.

    2. Esmeralda*

      The boss may not be getting the auto-reply — I know I can set the auto reply for people inside or outside the university, for instance, or for people in my contacts/address book

    3. Rachel of the West*

      I was out on medical leave for multiple months. During that time there was a computer update and my email started deleting anything in my inbox after 60 days. I came back to over 15,000 emails despite having no projects for months. 15,000 emails in 60 days. I wish I could have an auto response like that but it definitely would not be allowed.

  8. Ray Gillette*

    This does have the stink of an internet “productivity hack.” A whole lot of them basically boil down to either “be high up enough on the corporate ladder to have someone you can delegate these things to” or “just stop doing things and hope that nobody notices.”

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      A lot of those hacks boil down to being high up enough on the corporate ladder to call your own shots, whether it’s delegating to someone, canceling your appointments or arranging them as you see fit, etc. Like, if I had the option to do any of those things, I wouldn’t need the hack, because it would be a feature of my job.

    2. Lily Rowan*

      Agreed. Years ago, I worked for a smallish organization and our head of HR (!!) had a standing auto-reply that she only replied to emails on Friday so you’d hear back from her then.

      1. anonymous 5*

        I think I’ve told this story in a comment before, but I knew someone who tried the tactic of a message saying that they responded to emails on, say, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons; and that people could expect replies then. The kickers? It was an email signature (not even an auto-reply)…and it was on their personal account. They mostly just wanted to feel important and to feel like they’d devised a clever lifehack to push back on the supposed expectation to be constantly online. Too bad they were, well, pretty constantly online anyway.

        I think they made it about a week and a half before taking that message back off of their signature.

  9. LQ*

    This is totally listed as a productivity hack. I guess if you can get away with it without alienating folks then you can. But I’m not going to stop thinking you are incapable of doing your job unless I’ve seen real results elsewhere that show that you can. I know there’s kind of an “email is evil” pitch out there to help sell slack or whatever other tools you are looking at, but honestly, email is still a really good tool in a lot of places and for a lot of types of business communication. If you can get by with it it’s fine but I also think it’s fine to not coddle these people if you’re doing work that needs to be done through email and they have decided it’s not for them.

    If we are sending a solicitation for vendors and you don’t need the work and you just have out of office forever on, good for you. If you need the work but want us to sign up for your weird one off communication channel to reach out to you? Nope.

    Part of it is where are you in the cycle of things. If you need the thing that people are emailing you then you have to manage your emails. If you don’t, then you don’t. (I’ve seen this with job seekers who have the fancy you must verify that you’re a real person things set up on email or voice mails.)

    1. Quill*

      Much as I hate my current email load, the problem is the volume, not the presentation. And the inability to get it to quit auto-deleting things that are a month old without having to jump through IT hoops.

    2. drum songs*

      “(I’ve seen this with job seekers who have the fancy you must verify that you’re a real person things set up on email or voice mails.)”

      I had that happen once years ago with students who wanted to do a class study thing at my office. We were doing them a favor! They wanted us to do some weird thing so that THEY could see MY email messages? lol nope. Someone else in your class will forward the info to you, I’m not jumping through your hoop.

      I side-eye a lot of “email management” stuff that just tries to take another program and also turn it into email. There are a lot of ways to manage inboxes. Making me have an inbox, and a slack, and a discord, and a teams to all keep track of messages is not better.

  10. Zephy*

    It might be giving her more benefit of the doubt than is called for, but maybe she forgot she had the auto-reply turned on? Or maybe she’s screening her email and now that she knows who LW is, they’ll be whitelisted? LW doesn’t say whether they got this auto-response more than once, and she does appear to understand concepts like “there is a deadline looming, please check your email for further instructions,” seeing as she got back to LW right away originally. It doesn’t sound like she just threw the autoreply up and gave herself carte-blanche to ignore her email. But it might be useful for the LW to proactively bring up how best to keep in touch with this person during the course of this project they’re working on, if it doesn’t seem like email will be the de-facto means of communication.

    1. Laura H.*

      I kind of agree, but I also think that if it wasn’t an oversight, that’s not a great use of the auto-reply feature.

      Reasonable people will understand that email is asynchronous/ doesn’t always require immediate response, and that employees have other tasks that go beyond being tethered to email.

      Then again, people aren’t always reasonable.

    2. SnappinTerrapin*

      It wasn’t clear to me which of the two colleagues got back to her.

      That would influence my initial hard negative impression somewhat.

  11. Delta Delta*

    This seems sort of out of touch. It may be that this person gets a lot of emails. It may be this person needs a good system to devise dealing with emails. I think if I got to know this person a little bit, I might ask about it – not in a confrontational way but more in a, “I’ve never seen this before” kind of way. I’d be very curious to know more about this and why they use it.

  12. Guesty*

    Yes, this is super off-putting. It makes sense for instances, like Alison mentioned, where it’s understood that people aren’t guaranteed (or entitled to) a response.

    But if this person is working in one of the many fields that require regular communication between coworkers, this email is basically saying that this person is too busy reliable. It may be true. But, either way, the colleague should understand that this is going to lead people to the conclusion that they’d be better off finding someone more responsive. It’s going to drive work away from them and their organization… which may actually be a benefit if they are actually overwhelmed with work. Considering that they replied quickly to bid on a new project, I’m assuming that they have at least some free time, though.

    At this point, I’ve seen more terrible “productivity hacks” than good ones. If the colleague isn’t genuinely busy enough to the point that they would like to turn away future work, this is going to backfire on them.

  13. kfc*

    I don’t see how this affects the LW or their work at all. Like basically all auto-replies, they can ignore it. The contact got back to them straight away, and the LW can set a standard for their own employees not to do it since it bothers them so much.

    1. Guesty*

      If the LW’s project requires regular communication, this very well could affect their work. This person replied promptly this time, but what about the next time? Bandwidth is a huge issue when resourcing for a project, and it seems like this person is being upfront that they have very little of it.

      1. Esmeralda*

        Now that the other person is working with the LW, they may be looking for (or filtering) their email.

        If LW is getting responses in a timely fashion, no need to prickle about the auto reply.

        1. Guesty*

          As I said, people need some type of assurances about the future. We would hope that this person is taking some steps to ensure that the LW’s emails are somehow treated as a priority now that they’re working together, but we don’t actually know that that’s happening. I don’t blame the LW for initially being uneasy about the message.

      2. drum songs*

        And it is communication! This person’s first return communication was that there may not be any other communication after that. That’s a big message to send.

    2. Letter writer*

      It was a time-sensitive topic that I wrote them about (we were preparing a proposal together with a fixed deadline that needed lots of fleshing out).

      If it was just me asking a question I would have been less annoyed by it.

  14. Analytical Tree Hugger*

    This sounds weird and off-putting (but not bridge burning worthy). And auto-replies generate even *more* email, which exacerbates the email overload problem by generating non-productive emails (even if it’s in someone else’s inbox).

    Maybe a minor issue, maybe not. I’d be annoyed, though, since it doesn’t sound like an informative message.

  15. Physics Prof*

    I run a class for 1000 or so students, so I do have a note in the syllabus that if your question to me is answered there I might not respond to your email. Not the greatest of me, I know, but when I was a new prof. I’d have 50+ emails every morning when I got to work and most of them were the same questions over and over. It was so bad I started getting carpool-tunnel from all the emailing.

    It’s gotten better, and Slack has been where I re-direct most of the questions that other students might have and that helps a lot!

    1. Begonia*

      I also work at a university (as an administrator) and regularly get over 200 actionable emails a day. I wish I could put up an auto-response like this! We are a small staff in the middle of an extended hiring freeze and we just don’t have the capacity to help everyone in the timeline they want to be helped.

      1. Physics Prof*

        Wouldn’t it be great? It was so bad I was running out of time to, you know, teach! I can’t even imagine what 200 emails a day would look like.

    2. wendelenn*

      Carpool-tunnel is what happens when you try to respond to emails while driving. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Funny autocorrect!)

  16. Allypopx*

    I think I would at least mention that I find it concerning. Just as they’re talking out logistics…”You’re auto reply makes me think you’re really busy! If you have a lot on your plate maybe we could…[insert accommodations here* that puts less of a time demand on the contact]…I wouldn’t want intrude on your time or risk emails getting buried if you have a lot coming in.”

    Something like that? I don’t love the wording but the main idea is that to come up with * you don’t rethink the whole project, you just offer to shift something and gift the contact the opportunity to explain the auto reply. And from there you can decide if it feels like a good fit. So be non confrontational and friendly, but name your concerns.

  17. Sam*

    Maybe it’s a situation where the auto-reply is set up to only be sent in response to emails from outside their organization? I believe that’s an option in Outlook, that way the people who are definitely your colleagues/collaborators wouldn’t get this message but potential random emailers would? Still kind of weird though.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Yes, our Outlook setup allows you to have different auto-response content for internal vs external but I don’t see an option to only auto-respond to external emails (you can set it to auto-respond only to internal though).

      I hope at least that it doesn’t send an auto-reply every time LW tries to contact this person!

      1. Suz*

        “I don’t see an option to only auto-respond to external emails (you can set it to auto-respond only to internal though).” I wish it had that feature. Right now my message to internal people tells them to ignore the out of office message because Outlook won’t let me have one for external without one for internal too.

        1. Koalafied*

          There’s a janky workaround using E-mail Rules.

          First you have to set up a rule that runs on internal emails – either by sender address with your domain name or an address book member and then the action is to “stop processing more rules.”

          Then you set up a rule that runs on all emails where your name is in the To: field (or To: and CC: depending on what you need) and the action is to “have server reply using a specific message” and then create your OOO response by clicking on the “a specific message” link.

          Then just make sure that the first rule is higher in the priority list than the second one, and lower than any other rules that you DO want to apply to internal emails, so that Outlook will never get to running the second one on internal emails because they’ll hit the “stop processing more rules” action before that one gets a chance to run.

    2. caradom*

      It also allows you to prioritise who you want so I wouldn’t make too much assumptions about an auto office reply.

  18. Esmeralda*

    Not everyone can use these suggestions. My employer (large state university) gives everybody ONE email address. Departments can decide to set up separate email addresses for the department or for functions within the department. But I as an inidvidual employee cannot do these:
    * Different email address for different kinds of messages, to separate out the people for whom a “we may not respond” auto-reply makes sense.

    * Liberal use of form emails to quickly field a bunch of emails. (Really, anyone who gets a ton of email should have form responses set up.)

    My signature indicates a turnaround of 48 hours during the business week for students. I generally answer within 24 hours M – F, but that buffer helps at busier times. And I get a LOT of email, even with the university filtering out most spam.

    1. Colette*

      In most jobs, if you have more than one email, it’s because one of them is for a specific job function – I.e. you have your personal email, and then a address for that job function. So it sounds like that would work just fine in your organization.

        1. fhqwhgads*

          Sure, but in the scenario being discussed, if your department/employer doesn’t approve it, that’s them insisting on an inefficient process. I don’t think anyone was suggesting the individual set it up. It’s totally normal that’d be a request that goes through IT from someone in a position of authority.

    2. Observer*

      Liberal use of form emails to quickly field a bunch of emails. (Really, anyone who gets a ton of email should have form responses set up.)

      Why not? You don’t need separate email addresses for this. You just need some forms / rules / auto-signatures to make this kind of thing work.

      There is also a HUGE difference between “It may take up to 48 hours to respond to your email” vs “I’m too busy to reliably answer your email so don’t expect an answer from me.”

      The latter is also stupid, because it means that anyone that does actually need to deal with this person is going to be sending multiple updates and possibly going to other people to email / call them, rather than waiting for however long your response says is your turn-around.

      1. Bee*

        Yeah, even if you don’t have the tech capacity to set up form responses (Gmail has this, FYI), you can draft up a couple form responses and save them in a Word doc to copy-paste whenever you need them. It’s more steps than an auto-response, but a lot fewer than re-writing the same information every time.

        1. Elsajeni*

          Yeah, I have a couple of my most frequent email types saved as drafts that I copy-paste from and personalize as needed. It’s not particularly technically advanced, but it’s a lot quicker than retyping the whole thing every time a student emails to ask what their course evaluation password is or whatever.

  19. Quill*

    I shouldn’t feel jealous of your coworker but… I may never answer your email if you don’t give me the data I need to look up your request!

  20. No more emails*

    I think this is awesome, and I wish I could do it. Maybe she’s deeply overloaded and her employer wants her focusing on tasks rather than email churn and have given her the blessing to ignore the often pointless and unnecessary back and forth time suck of email. Maybe all her direct reports know her to be thoughtful in her communications. Maybe she struggles with the crazy pressure to be 100% “on” in her email responses (you did say she responded to you immediately) and this is a solution she landed on with management to preserve her mental health. I guess I just don’t see the red flag everyone else is seeing. We all hate email and recognise its become a many-headed monster, and it’s tendency to distract from our real work, this lady might be a hero.

      1. No more emails*

        I disagree-this would work in any of those cases. Maybe it’s cultural. I just don’t think “being on email” is really the be all and end all of being effective in ones job, and sometimes we really don’t owe a response. Why we would police anyone trying to make their work a little more manageable in this hellish time is beyond me!

        1. Bee*

          If I don’t think an email needs or deserves a response, I simply don’t respond! I think it’s bad to signal to people who DO need a response that they might not be important enough to get one. For example, if I need a response and haven’t gotten one within a reasonable timeframe, I’ll normally follow up with the person I emailed. But if I got this autoresponse, I would follow up with someone else instead, and then we’ve multiplied the number of emails in circulation, the number of people dealing with the project, and the hassle for everyone involved.

    1. Joielle*

      We do not all hate email! I love email – because it is appropriately managed at my workplace. I get very few “pointless and unnecessary” messages because roles are well defined, people wait an appropriate amount of time to follow up, we don’t CC people unnecessarily, and we have strong spam filters. If you see email as a huge problem, I think the actual problem is with your job, not email as a tool.

      Presumably people need to reach you at work… would you prefer dozens of phone calls? Or Slack/Teams/whatever messages? I certainly would not.

      1. allathian*

        Hard agree on this one! We do use Skype for chats, but never for requests, unless it’s something simple that I can answer without really thinking about it. This is acceptable even for lower-priority requests, because admin takes so much time. If it’s more complicated, I ask them to email our service email that is connected to a ticketing system.

        Sometimes with urgent requests, clients contact us on Skype when they’ve sent the email to know that it is urgent. Luckily we don’t have any “all my requests are urgent” folks.

      2. TechWorker*

        +1 responding to emails is like.. quite a bit of my job, so for me it’s definitely ‘real work’.

      3. hollis*

        same! And honestly I’m kinda sick of the excuses for “not being good at email.” It’s been a ubiquitous part of professional workplaces for over 25 years. The people I work with who “struggle with email” were younger than I am now (34) when email became commonplace.

        You’ve had a quarter decade to develop a filing system, folks. Google some workflow solutions, try using the Outlook To Do function which flags emails you can get back to later, use filing rules. Gmail actually lets you configure the views of you email for productivity. So many options if you feel overwhelmed. It’s really up to you to manage!

    2. Risha*

      Honestly, I think it’s really weird you hate email this much. Everything you just listed as downsides is true of Slack/Teams/IMs/texts except much more so, and mostly true of phone calls, and arguably true of face-to-face conversations. Are you just expecting to never be communicated with at work?

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        My company has a weird preference for text messages, including group texts, for matters that could be handled more effectively and efficiently over email.

        We have to play the hand we are dealt.

  21. Ann O'Nemity*

    I know I couldn’t get away with it, but there IS something tempting about having an auto-response saying, “Due to email volume, you may not receive a response.” I get 50-100 a day, and often ask myself how reasonable or feasible it is to respond to all of them. Email overload is real.

    (On the other hand, I occasionally think about auto-declining all internal meeting requests with the comment, “Could this be an email instead?” But that takes me back to the problem above – too many emails!)

  22. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

    I have the ability to tailor my auto-responses so that different responses go to emails coming from inside my organization and from external domains. Back in the olden days before I started working in consulting, my email was 99% internal; additionally the vast majority of that remaining 1% came from vendors I didn’t work with trying to sell me stuff, so I definitely set very low (or no) expectations about responding to messages if the email originated outside my company.

    It means a lot that the person you emailed responded very quickly. That indicates that the person reads their emails and handles them, and is much more relevant information to your concern than the autoresponder on its own.

    1. Observer*

      It means a lot that the person you emailed responded very quickly. That indicates that the person reads their emails and handles them, and is much more relevant information to your concern than the autoresponder on its own.

      Actually that’s not the case – the OP notes that someone inside the organization gave this person a heads up that they need to get this email answered ASAP. That is NOT good.

      Now, it doesn’t mean that the person won’t be responsive as needed. But it’s a reasonable concern. And it is rude, regardless.

      1. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

        Oh! I think I misunderstood that. I had thought that there was the expectation set that the email would be coming and that it was for a time sensitive project *and* the recipient had gotten back straight away. For sure if the recipient needed to be prodded to read/respond to the email, that does indicate a problem.

  23. And I'm Out*

    I’ve seen this ill-advised productivity hack in multiple generally awful “how to dominate your worklife”/”how to be the most impressive, productive person in your organization” type books. It goes along with similarly tone-deaf hacks like:

    – When you’re on vacation, don’t check your work emails/voicemail/messages at all. Once you get back from vacation, delete everything without reading/responding. If it’s important, people will try to reach you again.

    – Hire a small army of personal assistants, preferably virtual assistants, and give them the logon info to your work email address. Arm them with a handful of email scripts to respond to your emails (pretending they’re you), and then set them loose. Then be generally unhelpful and unresponsive if they have more questions. You’ve delegated the task, and now it’s their job to figure it out.

    Ironically, the authors of these books are generally self-employed people, founders of their own consulting firms, or otherwise the CEO of their self-created company.

    1. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

      Oh dear lord. Those tips are terrible! I mean, I aspire to not checking emails while on vacation, and I will certainly set expectations if I’m going to be someplace without good cell or wifi capabilities (you know, back in the days where vacation travel was a thing!), but I still generally check at least once or twice while I’m gone just to make sure something isn’t on fire–and so I’m not coming back to hundreds of unread messages.

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        While I was out sick with covid, I had multiple calls and texts daily. Granted, most of my responses were redirecting the employees to the person who could help them during my absence, but email would have made it easier to manage these demands on my time.

        There are a number of helpful hints above that could have speeded my recovery without slowing my team.

    2. A Plastic-Man stretch*

      Ironically, the authors of these books are generally self-employed people, founders of their own consulting firms, or otherwise the CEO of their self-created company.

      God forbid we should emulate self-starters who are successful at what they do?

      1. Roci*

        The issue is that these tips don’t work when you have to answer to someone and collaborate with people.
        If I was the head of my own company and my product was my advice, then I could do whatever I want and not have my boss fire me for not answering my email!

    3. allathian*

      Yeah, this is interesting. There are some countries in the EU, where employees have the right to disconnect from work when they’re not actually working. Some companies even block access to work email when you’re on vacation, etc. The European Parliament is currently debating whether to make this apply in the EU as a whole. I’m just wondering what this would mean for flexible working hours…

      1. TechWorker*

        Given that currently in the EU you have the right to only work at most 48h a week, but that most professionals just sign away this right when they’re hired… idk how enforceable the right to disconnect from work will be? Like if individuals are allowed to opt out then that will presumably be the norm in many workplaces.

  24. Letter writer*

    Hello, letter writer here. Thanks for the input, I appreciate all answers and viewpoints!

    Since this happened we’ve been working on the project I mentioned, and them being busy is constantly mentioned in the communications (in my opinion a bit too much). Being busy given the pandemic and home schooling in the UK at the moment is totally understandable! At our organisation we’re lucky to have been able to adapt to this and accommodate parents as good as possible. Still, the way they communicate about it feels a bit frantic and it’s influencing my expectations.

    Overall, the project will be finished in time and it will be ok (not great, but ok), so no drama. The out of office message also led to some interesting discussions in our own team of how we communicate and deal with busy periods, so for that it has been quite a good occasion!

      1. LGC*

        It might be hard for LW to know! It depends on the system, but I think that for Outlook by default you’ll only get the auto-reply on your first email (I’ve emailed my boss on days she’s off multiple times – she has a need to be kept in the loop, plus sometimes I’ll send out standard reports). So if the colleague hasn’t ever set it to off, LW might not see any changes.

      2. Letter Writer*

        I am not sure as Outlook seems to filter out the second time you receive the same out of office, so I honstly don’t know!

  25. KuklaRed*

    I don’t think I would ever use an auto-reply like that, but I can see why someone might. I started my current position 4 weeks ago. Upon logging in to my new work account on my first day, I already had just under 7,000 emails in an account that had been created just a few days before. And it keeps pouring in – hundreds every day. It can be a struggle to find the emails that are actually something I need to know or act on. I make liberal use of Outlook rules and folders.

  26. Heidi*

    I guess this kind of auto-reply works if you want people to not set their expectations too high. I wouldn’t assume that they’re getting thousands of emails a day, though. I was just talking to someone who said she felt overwhelmed from getting 100 emails this past WEEK. That’s about 14 emails a day. I did not mention that I got more than 14 emails just in the time I spent talking to her, and I marvel at my restraint even now.

    1. 3DogNight*

      Oh, yeah. I’m right there with you, close to 200 mails on a normal day. There are no slow days, but on abnormal days it could be 500.

      1. Puff*

        Fair enough, but # of emails isn’t on its own an indication of the work load. Are these emails sent as an FYI, do you have a boiler plate response to send or an easy forward to the correct contact person, do you have to look into each email in detail and craft a response that is likely to lead to back and forth, or do you have to review a document and prepare comments? 10 involved emails might produce way more work than 45 FYI emails and 5 involved ones.

        1. Willis*

          This. I always think its odd when people talk about how many emails they get a day as an indicator of workload.

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            I mean, presumably there’s a minimum time needed to assess the item in your inbox (even just “action”/”no action”) which would give a theoretical, mathematical maximum number of emails it’s possible to process in a day without Rules or batch processing.

            I know my spouse gets a lot of system emails at certain periods which are only actionable if there’s a failure, obvious in the subject line. He can skim through an inbox of a hundred emails in a few seconds and dismiss them all. He can easily get thousands of emails per day without flinching.

            Meanwhile, almost every email I receive needs actually reading, saving to file, extracting deadlines and tasks and updating up to three (deliberately discrete) systems, and queuing for reply/report. That’s typically achieved within two working days, frequently same day, but each real email represents maybe twenty to thirty minutes’ work. If I log in and see twenty emails waiting for me, I’m praying some of them are junk.

    2. caradom*

      Saying 14 or even 100 is pointless without context. Some of my emails take a few mins. Some take a few hours, depending on the nature of the work. Some will take a day due to going back and forth with people.

  27. The teapots are on fire*

    My SO actually has an autoreply very much like this. He does not get emails from the public, and rarely from his single customer. He is on a project where his work is ridiculously over-scoped, has not been able to get relief from management, and there is currently a corporate culture that everyone is just overworked and that’s how it is. Other similarly overworked teapot designers tell him it’s brilliant. No one has told him it’s inappropriate. He gets over 100 emails a day and many of them require a lengthy and substantive response. He sets priorities as best he can with some management input, and tries to move on.
    Of course, it’s not brilliant and it is inappropriate and he knows this. It’s a way of coping with a messed up corporate culture and setting reasonable expectations within that culture for people who need his input. He tells them in his autoreply to call him if they must hear from him right away.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I’d use it if I thought I could get away with it. Our company culture is that every email gets CC’d to the entire corporation; I cope by maintaining a allowed-list of people who get through when they CC me, and let the spam filter feast on the majority of the chaff.

  28. Suz*

    I tried having 2 different email addresses for a while and it backfired on me. Too many people knew my primary address so they’d send the same email to both and I wound up with twice as many emails in my inbox.

  29. Always "anon just for this"*

    I find this conversation fascinating: thanks everyone! My perspective has been the opposite of pretty much everything written here.

    In my role, I receive copious amounts of email. If I did nothing but answer email all day, I’d still never be able to get through it all. My manager has said email isn’t supposed to take more than an hour of my day, which has seemed inconceivable. It’s been a source of frustration for both of us for years – until we came to the understanding/consensus that I didn’t need to answer everything.

    I have a clear workplan for the year, with metrics and targets to meet. I break it down and review it regularly, so I know what I need to have accomplished each week to meet my goals. At my manager’s suggestion, I identify 2-4 priorities each week, then review my email from that lens: I skim email looking for urgent/priority issues and answer those; for the rest of the email I receive, if it doesn’t correlate to my priorities, I can ignore it. My manager said if it’s really urgent, people will eventually follow-up – at which point I’ll catch it when looking for the urgent/priority issues.

    Knowing I don’t have to keep up with the influx of email has been a godsend and has helped me be my most productive for the last few years. (Where almost everyone else in my field and definitely in my organization had a bit of am unsettled 2020, I completed everything on my workplan as well as a number of covid-specific projects.)

    I don’t have an auto-response letting people know I won’t get back to them, but I’ve thought about adding one often. It seemed like a polite thing to do to set expectations. I just couldn’t come up with language I liked. After reading everyone’s responses here, I definitely won’t be doing that!

  30. Morgan Hazelwood*

    My second thought was, perhaps this message is only sent to people not in her contact book? I.e. People not from the company. And that she’s never interacted with before.

    That seems like a pretty reasonable response to me. I’m now considering it….

  31. Tussy*

    I find it amusing that LW wrote in with this question and would have them gotten an email response saying the same as the response they were asking about!

    It’s fair for Alison to have that but it’s a fun bit of irony :) I would have definitely had a good laugh if I’d written in with this and gotten that response.

    1. Letter Writer*

      As the letter writer I can assure you that Alison’s/this website’s auto-response is different (though I did think it was funny!) It’s different because it’s clear in what I could expect as the reader.

      With this colleague I wasn’t sure what would happen, plus it wasn’t something I have ever seen from an organisation so similar to ours. Most of the times when I receive an auto-response it’s all very reasonable (i.e. clear expectation management). As I wote, if there had been a time frame or a redirection in the auto-reply, my reaction would have been different and I would not have written this letter.

      It has made me realise my employer is great at managing our own work load though and we can speak up when we might get overwhelemed (so we can tackle it).

  32. Kali*

    It’s useful the Op mentioning that this person isn’t a celebrity. My undergrad uni had a celebrity professor. Don’t know if he had that kind of auto reply but apparently he was a bit of a nightmare as a supervisor because he didn’t respond to any student emails and his lectures were always full of fans.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      I used to deal with someone who had a similar volume of noise in his inbox. If he wanted to hear from you, he’d tell you which of his assistants to copy in.

      So I’d write To: Wakeen Cc: Fergus, and Fergus would see it was from me and make sure it went on Wakeen’s to-do list.

      If you just pulled his email address from the website / publications / business card, it would go into the inbox and maybe never come out again.

  33. How much is enough*

    I am a department head at a small company. I get about a dozen emails a week from companies that have read our public facing info and want to “collaborate” with us, by which they mean they want to sell us thier services. I.e. cold calls.

    I file most of these away unanswered in case I need those services later but about 20 percent of them keep following up with “did you get my message?” until I reply we aren’t interested.

    I can handle this volume, but I can imagine in some industries there might be 10 or 20 times as much, so I can see how an autoreply would be tempting.

    Also, we’ve heard on this site how some small businesses are afraid to turn away work even if they are already working 16 hours a day, they worry about “lean times” to come, so this could be a way to give themselves permission to worry less about missed opportunities instead of trying to work 17 hours a day.

    I admit the wording could be better, but you can’t please everyone with any wording, and the person did respond quickly to this legitimate inquiry so I see no reason to hold it against them.

  34. Amethystmoon*

    That must depend on the organization. Where I work, we would get in trouble for an auto-response like that. But we also have to answer e-mails within 2 working days.

  35. BigRedGum*

    I wish soooooo much that I could do that, but my grandboss would not like it. I also wish I could put something like “if this question is super dumb and you can google it yourself, don’t expect an answer” but again, this is my job. So I would never.

  36. Regular Human Accountant*

    About two years ago my company hired someone who almost immediately set up an auto-reply stating she would respond within 7 to 10 business days, with no alternative way to contact her–this, for a job that sometimes required a 24-hour turnaround. I found the auto-reply VERY off-putting and I wasn’t the only one; she only lasted about a year with us.

  37. Thankful I am out of the llama shearing business*

    I have done this in my old job at certain times of the year (llama shearing season for example) but was very specific that if the email is about anything other than llama shearing there will be a delay. If it is about llama shearing I will get back to them quickly. Agree that without more context it’s hard to tell. If anything, they should have given a few more details in the auto reply. I’ve actually been commended for using this autoreply during llama shearing season. It also sends the message that I am focusing on the high priority work during that time…so even if a llama email is delayed they know I’m not just fooling around on something else.

Comments are closed.