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Etiquette at work

Do business e-mails merit an immediate response?

The participants at my business etiquette talk were busy solving a “difficult situation” exercise, and I took a moment to sit with one of the event organizers.

“I hope you’re going to talk about e-mail,” he said. He was curious about the rules of responding to e-mails. He was frustrated that people expect an immediate response. I concurred.

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Typically, the book on responding to e-mails is either the same day or within 24 hours. Some businesses set shorter response expectations, such as within four hours. If your company has such an expectation, you should abide by it. If not, the same day or the 24-hour guideline is a safe bet.

I use an approach suggested by time management experts. I don’t set my notification to beep every time a new e-mail arrives. I take a couple of breaks to batch process e-mails. That way my focus stays on the work I’m doing.

When I do check my e-mail, my focus is on each message: understanding the request, crafting a reply, checking for errors, confirming the “To” field, and listening for tone before I hit send.

Every now and then I’ll get a call from someone: “Peter, why didn’t you respond to my e-mail? It’s important.” Therein lies the conundrum. Their expectation has become: “My e-mail demands your immediate attention.” This is obviously counter to my approach which is, “I don’t want e-mails constantly interrupting my concentration on work.” In my view, if what you need is so important, call me.

And it’s not just the way that I manage my e-mail that could delay a response. The e-mail could fall victim to spam blockers, or a slow Internet day, or a technical problem with the e-mail provider.

With a phone call, the person has a better chance of getting a quick response The added benefit is we can have a discussion and come to a conclusion more quickly and efficiently than by engaging in back and forth e-mails. E-mails are great for who, what, when, and where. It is not the best tool when the discussion explores the “why” of a situation.

My advice? If time is of the essence, pick up the phone. Otherwise, don’t expect a reply until the end of the day.

E-mail questions about business etiquette to etiquetteatwork@emilypost.com.
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