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Feb 3, 2020

Don’t enable, elevate. The Third Email Rule

If your first two emails to have not been answered, the third email should copy the addressee’s supervisor, as well as your supervisor. This elevates the issue to the next level, and at least lets the supervisors know there is a problem. Going around the person, or calling him or her, or going in person – all of these enable poor communication habits, and hide the problem, rather than address it. Instead, apply good work standards. If you are the only one who does it, you will get a reputation of complainer, and may damage your relationships with colleagues. If we all do it, we are simply following a simple rule, and bringing more structure into our communications.

Those include replying to people’s requests, even if the reply is “no can do,” or “contact someone else.” Regular emails, addressed to you (not just copied to you) should be answered within five business days. Emails marked as urgent should be answered within one business day, two at most. The same should work for office phone messages. The rule applies to me, and yes, my supervisor, the Provost is OK with that.

I can anticipate an objection from many people saying they receive too many emails, especially from students. Yes, I am fully aware of that. However, this would give us an opportunity to review our procedures. No one has to be flooded with emails; it is not fair to the receiver, and not fair to senders. If you get flooded, consider one or more of the following:
  • Change information publicly available on your webpages, so people do not need to contact you as much
  • Manually or automatically forward some of the e-mails to others who can help. Alternatively, create a generic mailbox with several people helping to address your traffic. Delegate and divide labor. There is no reason you should do this alone.
  • Instead of giving out your e-mail address, create a small online form, like those you’ve seen in service areas of many corporations. Structure the messages in a way that it is clearer what people want from you and steer them away if you are not the right person to answer a certain kind of requests. This will reduce time needed to process each email, and allow you to forward more of them to other people who can help.
In short, do not stress out, do not work late, do not ignore. Solve the problem. If you are getting too many emails, there is a problem with your position in the organization. Perhaps you have become a bottleneck, and it is time to delegate more. Whatever the problem exists, it needs to be addressed calmly and solved, not buried.

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