A reader writes:
I have a small cultural issue at work that is driving me crazy and takes a not-insignificant amount of bandwidth out of my busy schedule. My workplace is comprised of 70% EU employees, 30% US. We are a mid-sized company with a high volume of work in an industry that bridges the gap, culturally, with another — it is the mid-point between a more formal industry and one that can afford to be a little more casual in its communication.
My colleagues demand closed-loop responses to every single email regardless of responsibility or content, to a point where the formality of it borders on the obsequious. A very common example reads like this:
Colleague writes to me and cc’s two members of my team and two members of their team.
1: Colleague: I have a request for X type of documentation template, can you send it to me? Here are the details.
2: Me: Sure, here’s the prepared document.
3: Colleague: Thank you very much!
4: Me: You are very welcome, and please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions.
Of those four lines, 1 and 2 are obviously imperative to the ask, but if 3 and 4 are not met, I receive endless inquiries from people on the thread. If Colleague doesn’t respond to 2 after I have sent the document and the ball is in their court, my team will reach out to me to ask if I have followed up with Colleague and their team to see if they have received the document and if they need any additional support. If I don’t respond to 3 in response, someone will invariably reach out and ask if I have offered additional support or responded to the thank-you email in kind with a “you’re welcome.” This happens at least four times a week.
I come from a work environment where a ‘TY!’ via ping is as meaningful as a formal thank-you note, and have always had it normalized that sometimes you don’t need to continue a thread past the ask and deliverable, especially if the workflow is fast-paced and high in volume. Being reminded to constantly thank employees for responding to an email makes me feel belittled, although it’s worth stating that this is coming from both lateral and managerial colleagues across the org. In my daily written communication, I am friendly, polite, prompt, and exhaustive in providing my guidance, and I would describe myself as very well-liked among my colleagues. But this keeps coming up and it is really bugging me.
I have tried several tactics to remediate this: One, I have told colleagues that I will not participate in this practice myself, and that as a matter of habit and my job role (which is senior), I trust my colleagues to complete the necessary tasks that I have outlined as a contribution in my response. Two, I have asked colleagues what they believe needs to be responded to — I ask if they noticed something I missed in the initial inquiry, because I feel confident that the original ask has been satisfied. Each time, their response effectively rests on “it’s not polite to ignore an email,” to which I respond that it isn’t ignoring the email. Finally, I have explained to them that culturally, this is how I communicate.
It has gotten to the point where my manager, a person who routinely ignores most emails, has started telling me that I need to close the loop on every single inquiry. This is a role that receives ~10-20 complex, detailed daily requests with limited delegation opportunities. I’m at a loss here. Should I start sending a boilerplate or automatic response? This is so trivial but it honestly screws up my day a little when someone holds me at Outlook gunpoint for an obsequious, irrelevant reply to a long-completed thread.
This is incredibly bizarre. When you don’t reply to a “thank you” email with “you’re welcome,” your coworkers nudge you to do it? And ask if you’ve offered additional support on top of that?
This is extremely odd.
Look, I’m fine with a cultural expectation that people should close the loop with a “thank you” when they receive an item they requested (#3 in your list), so that the person who sent it is confident that it was received and the transaction has been completed. However, it would still be incredibly weird for your coworkers to follow up with you to remind you to do that, unless you were an intern or perhaps a high school student doing a summer apprenticeship. You are in a senior role. WHY why why are your coworkers checking in to ensure you’ve responded with not just thank-you’s, but you’re-welcome’s too?
And to be clear, if it was just that your office in general sent and expected “you’re welcome” emails, that wouldn’t in itself be a big deal. Organizations develop all sorts of mildly odd cultural norms around email. What’s strange here, though, is that your coworkers are so invested in it that they’re policing you to this degree and reminding you and calling you out when you don’t do it.
How are they getting any work done if they are monitoring and micromanaging email exchanges to this extent? And again, you are in a senior role.
I’m not sure I’ve had this much trouble getting my head around a weird office practice since the office that didn’t permit humor.
Anyway, if your boss is telling you that you need to do it and hasn’t been responsive to your counter-arguments, then you probably need to do it unless you have the capital and the will to take a firmer stand. Feel free to set up short email templates that you can dispatch with a couple of clicks to minimize the amount of time and energy it takes.
Two caveats to that, though: First, you have made your case to your boss for not doing it, right? If not, try that first. Second, what would happen if you just … declined to engage with this weirdness? Like when your coworkers ask you whether you’ve closed the loop with someone, could you just ignore that? Or say yes, because you’ve closed the loop in the way you define it, even if they don’t agree? Or respond with, “I’ve got it covered; no need to check in on this sort of thing”? Or even, depending on the politics of the relationships, “I’ve got it covered; please don’t check in on this sort of thing since it creates a lot of additional back and forth”? Would those options use up a ton of capital in your office and with your boss … or would it just annoy people but ultimately be fine?
Also, for the record, it’s particularly bizarre that your boss is ordering you to do it when she herself full-on ignores most emails … and I wonder if it’s because your coworkers have taken their extreme concern about your email habits to her and, rather than standing up for email sanity, she’s decided it’s easier to just appease them? I don’t know, but your office is officially Very Strange.