Employee E-mail Etiquette: The Importance of Acknowledgement

Is a discussion of what to do when a dicey e-mail reaches executives a topic that is reviewed during leadership development programs?

I have experienced the irritation of carefully crafting an e-mail, only to have it ignored. Most of us probably have had this experience at some point. The question is: Are there times when employee e-mails SHOULD be ignored?

I found this piece on LinkedIn by Abhishek Shenoy on how e-mails should always be acknowledged. “One of my managers had taught me a very important, but often-overlooked point in e-mail etiquette: acknowledgment. He emphasized that an e-mail acknowledgment speaks volumes about a person long before the actual interactions begin and is a quality very few people possess,” Shenoy wrote in 2021.

Plausible Deniability

Management may not respond to an e-mail at all if they feel even the simplest of responses will get them into trouble. It gives them what I have heard called “plausible deniability” to avoid acknowledging receipt. If you don’t acknowledge receipt, you can remain “ignorant” of the e-mail’s contents.

I imagine this may occur frequently with whistleblower e-mails. The simplest way to avoid making a difficult decision is to pretend you never received the e-mail.

Some management inboxes, however, have an automatic response mechanism that sends a cursory message that the e-mail has been received and will be responded to within a specified time frame. What does a company seeking to ignore a problem do then?

Beyond E-mail

Meanwhile, from the employee’s perspective, what needs to happen next? A persistent and brave employee with a significant concern may proceed to phone calls. Those also can be ignored, of course. But the executive or manager fielding the calls would have to be savvy enough to know the name and/or phone number of the person the company is trying to avoid responding to. Once on the phone, they would be caught.

And what happens when the employee shows up in-person, knocking on an executive’s office door. Do executive offices need tinted glass and a version of the Ring doorbell?

The point is: You can’t ignore a problem or difficult-to-answer question forever if the person seeking to express themselves is persistent. Therefore, what should the protocol be for executives and Human Resources when employees e-mail? Is an automated response enough? With no further communication necessary? How about if the automated response doesn’t promise that the employee will be responded to? It could say something like, “Thank you for your message. We will contact you if we are able to find a solution or provide you with the information you requested.”

Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

Despite being the hardest thing, the protocol may need to be to always at least acknowledge receipt and respond as best as possible. If there is no solution or information that can be provided, is the best policy honesty? The could mean a response along the lines of:

“Thank you for your e-mail. We are not able to provide you with the information you have requested. Please let us know if you have further questions.”

The continuing challenge is what to do when you can’t give an employee with a question or concern the information or solution they are looking for. How much honesty is too much? If you can’t answer their question or provide a solution to a stated problem, the logical question the employee will ask is: Why not? What are you hiding and why?

Tackle the Topic in Leadership Training

I would be curious to learn how many organizations discuss the challenge I have noted in this blog. I wonder if a discussion of what to do when a dicey e-mail reaches executives is a topic that is reviewed during leadership development programs.

I think it’s worth discussing. You must decide what your corporate culture is when it comes to the sharing of information. How transparent do you want to be? How transparent is too transparent? You want to have an honest dialogue and give-and-take with employees, but you also want to protect your organization legally and maintain proprietary business information.

How does your organization approach this challenge?