When Is It Too Late To Reply to an Email?

And how should you acknowledge your long-delayed response?

May 31, 2019
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Let’s say you just stumbled across an unread message that’s been languishing in your email inbox. Maybe you missed it while you were out of the office on vacation – it can happen to anyone – or maybe it just became submerged below other emails in an average busy week.

When is it too late to respond?

“We are all busy and occasionally emails slip by,” says Rachel Loock, a career and leadership coach at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, adding, it’s never too late to reply.

“It’s OK to recognize that it slipped by you and apologize for not responding sooner. Replying now depends on the importance of the request,” she says. “I do try to circle back to people just to close the loop, even if it’s too late to act. There’s a professional courtesy there.”

It goes without saying that it’s important to respond to emails from your boss, senior leadership, clients – even if your reply is tardy.

For some emails – unsolicited sales propositions, for example – a reply is unnecessary. “I wouldn’t feel bad about not responding. There are different tiers of relationships and people you interact with via email.”

Organize your inbox

To avoid overlooking emails in the first place, find an email inbox organization system that works for you and use it. Maybe “inbox zero” – where you use inbox folders to file or delete every message as you receive it – works for you. It’s not Loock’s personal method. She prefers to use dates, subjects and sender to search her emails.

“If I’ve had a particularly busy week or if I’ve been out on vacation and I’ve missed a lot, I will go back to my first day of vacation and start there to scan through my inbox,” she says. “Even if you’ve kept up with your emails a bit while you were out and responded immediately to the most pressing ones, you will likely have others you still need to deal with.”

Set expectations

When you are going to be out of the office – whether ill, on vacation, at a conference or just consumed with all-day meetings – use the automated out-of-office email reply. “That lets people know you may not respond immediately,” Loock says. “You’ve put them on notice that the reply might not be a quick one.”

With the auto-reply activated, you can monitor messages and decide when to jump in. If an issue comes up that you can reply to easily with a clarification that will resolve a problem before it spirals, you can deal with it right away. For most other matters, you can hold off. “Use your judgment,” Loock says.

Hearing crickets yourself?

Sometimes you’re the one waiting, perhaps for a while, for someone to reply to an email. When that happens, Loock says, go ahead and send a follow-up email.

“If a couple weeks have gone by and you haven’t heard anything, and you’d still like a response, try again,” she says. “If they don’t respond again, that’s your cue to move on.”

Loock says she prefers the follow-up email to the follow-up phone call. She doesn’t like to put people on the spot with a phone call, unless she has a particularly good working relationship with them. “If they haven’t responded to your email that you sent a couple of times,” she says, “there is probably a reason.”

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