Hey Co-Worker: Stop Ignoring My Emails

Pete Ross

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Imagine for a second that we know each other personally and we work in the same office. I come up to you in the cafeteria and say hello and how’s it going, before trying to talk to you about something I need from you in order to complete a task. Something that is in your job description and well within your capabilities. We work together all the time, so this wouldn’t be a surprise or unwelcome in any way.

Now imagine that instead of talking to me, you look straight at me, then turn and walk away without saying a word.

In literally every culture in the world, acting in such a way would be considered rude as heck. Even for a movie character who is the supposed “cool guy”, acting in that kind of way wouldn’t be seen as funny, it would be used to show him as a total douche on the way to him getting his comeuppance.

And yet, every day in the business world, this happens with emails. I’ve literally lost count of the amount of times that I’ve sent someone an email only to have it flat out ignored. It’s legitimately a regular occurrence not just for me, but for a bunch of people I know, to the point that I find myself wondering what the hell is going on in the world, because there always seems to be an excuse given by other people for their behaviour.

  • “Everyone is busy, you shouldn’t take it personally.”
  • Maybe they just forgot about it or accidentally deleted it.”
  • “Oh, maybe you should have gone over and talked to them, or given them a call.”
  • “They’re under a lot of pressure you know, they get hundreds of emails a day.”

I even had a manager call and give me a blasting once for failing to meet a customer deadline because his staff (3 of them!) failed to answer one of my emails. I should have followed up more with them, because apparently my job, unbeknownst to me, is to be their personal assistant.

Talk about low expectations.

It wouldn’t be an issue if people sent an email or even a text message in reply, saying “hey, really busy right now with higher priority things — when do you need this by?” Really, even a message to acknowledge it would be sufficient. What I suspect goes on is that the person usually sees it and files it away in their mind as not important enough. Then one of two things happens:

  1. They see the email 3 weeks later when scrolling through their unorganised inbox, at which point they hope that the sender has forgotten about it before deleting it.
  2. You follow them up because it’s critical, at which point they send the fake apology because they’ve been caught out.

What annoys me the most about these people is that you do everything to elicit a response. When someone is a serial offender and you have something critical that needs answering, you mark it as high importance and maybe even write URGENT in the subject with a date that you need it by.

Then you get it back a week after you needed it with a lame response like, “sorry, guess I missed my deadline.”

Yeah, no crap you did. Your flippant response is super appreciated as well, dumb*ss.

Even worse, a few years ago a co-worker of mine discovered that a mutual colleague had been straight up deleting her emails. This colleague had simply decided that they were in the too hard basket and that she’d act as though they never got sent in the first place. Needless to say, the ignored emailer went ballistic.

In this instance, the deleter had a good boss with high responsibility. I don’t know exactly what he said to her, but following this the email deleter could not be helpful enough. She answered every email after that.

That seems to be a rarity though, because the problem is usually that people’s bosses automatically give them the benefit of the doubt, like answering an email is the equivalent of curing cancer. They act as though said person always has the weight of the world on their shoulders and is such a delicate genius (to use George Costanza’s term) that we should be thankful to get a response out of them at all.

Did you go over and talk to them?

Did you give them a call?

Did you give them pre-warning?

Did you lay out a red carpet, bring them coffee and donuts and then kindly request a response to your email?

To which I want to ask “are you serious? I’m asking them to answer an email, not solve string theory.”

I almost don’t blame these people, because they’re getting away with it. Who I blame are their bosses for not holding them accountable. Is it really that hard to sit them down and say “hey, what’s the deal here? You can’t just be ignoring emails, especially on these gigantic accounts.”

Here’s some food for thought: if you’re at a company where everyone is overworked and struggling to get through the day, then you have bigger problems than people not answering an email. The problem is systemic. But when you’re in a company where a large group of people can answer emails efficiently and other people can’t, the problem isn’t with the company.

To paraphrase Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” In this case it might not be stupidity, just sheer incompetence. You may feel I’m being uncharitable, but the thing about these email ignorers is that they all seem to have the trait of not having their act together. I’ve known people who are so busy that their hair is literally turning grey prematurely like Obama’s did while he was in office, yet they always manage to at least get out a concise response to you in a reasonable time frame.

There are two outcomes to you being a serial email ignorer. The first is that people think you’re a douche, because you only read and respond to the things you think are worth your time. You assume you’re that important that you don’t have to do your job like everyone else. The second is that people just think you’re incompetent.

In the second case, no one wants to hear your excuses. The rest of us manage to get through our work and handle our responsibilities to coworkers. Get your act together and meet the societal expectation that you’ll respond to other people’s communication, it’s really not that hard.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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