Chapter 9

Email Reader Responsibilities

Email etiquette involves not only the writer, but also the reader. Unfortunately, an email deluge has frustrated many readers and made them, on average, perhaps somewhat more impatient with the demands of email management than they might have been in the early days of these electronic communications.

Despite the annoyances of email, people who use it for work must be vigilant about their handling of incoming messages. Keep in mind the following guidelines.

1. Don’t file or delete messages carelessly.

If you arrive at the office in the morning and encounter a hundred email messages, it is natural to want to take care of them efficiently. Don’t, however, file and delete so quickly that you make mistakes. Go slowly enough that you can avoid misfilings and accidental deletions.

2. Address all of the sender’s questions or concerns.

Unfortunately, many people do not read their incoming messages with care. It is all too common, even with very clear messages consisting of no more than a couple of sentences, for the recipient to disregard the second sentence and respond only to the contents of the first. The result is that the original emailer must send a follow-up email. If ultimately four messages are necessary instead of two, the original recipient is responsible not only for wasting the time of the email sender, but also for causing annoyance.

The moral: skimming a message, or reading only the first line or two, is inadequate.

3. Don’t allow too many unanswered messages to accumulate in your inbox.

If your email inbox is constantly overflowing, at some point you are likely to overlook an important or time-sensitive communication. To reduce this likelihood, develop a routine that will help you keep your email inbox organized.

4. Respond efficiently to important email messages.

If you receive an urgent email that requires a prompt response — say within a day — consider answering right away to acknowledge that you have received the email and are working on a response. That may reassure an eager client or concerned manager. You might also want to indicate when you expect to send the response. It can be helpful to mark a reminder on your calendar or set an alert so that you remember to follow through by the deadline.

If for some reason you can’t or don’t respond to an important message quickly enough (and how quickly is quickly enough will depend on the context), apologize for the delay.

5. If a client complains that emails are being rejected by your company’s email system, do what you can to help resolve the issue.

Some companies have overeager spam filters that inexplicably reject even important and necessary email messages. It is bad business to reject emails from clients or from others outside your firm who may be providing you with services and information you need. It can be maddening to the sender of the rejected email, even more so if the recipient (you) is cavalier about the problem. Although you may have nothing to do with the problem, you are the face of your company for this person and should therefore follow up vigilantly, or have one of your employees follow up vigilantly, with your IT department or whoever is responsible for resolving the issue.

6. Don’t allow email to take over your working life to the detriment of other responsibilities.

Answering email is probably not your only responsibility at work. Some people seem to forget that, abandoning other tasks in their zeal to answer email messages as soon as they show up on their computer screens. Efficiency is important, but is it actually efficient to constantly interrupt what one is doing in order to answer an email the moment it arrives?

If you are a compulsive email checker — and if compulsively checking email is not your actual job! — consider whether you might be able to cut back on the frequency with which you check your inbox. Depending on the nature of your work, you may not be able to do so, but if you can, you may find your way to a less scattered, more productive work day.