Email Avoidance Syndrome

When’s the last time you emailed 10 people about work-related business and actually got 10 responses? 8? How about 7? I’m willing to bet you’d be lucky to hear back from half of them and, if you did, it would likely be weeks after you needed the information. I’ve spent many a sleepless night trying to understand why timely follow up is the exception and not the norm, but I just don’t get it.  

I meet with a lot of stressed out job seekers who are sitting on pins and needles waiting to hear back from companies about their candidacy, but I also hear from an equal number of frustrated colleagues who are left staring at their inbox hoping the people they’ve reached out to will someday decide to respond.  

I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why this happens, but I thought I’d focus on a few of the lamest ones, followed by a few quick tips on effective e-mail use at work. 

Out of sight, out of mind. Someone told me once that if I stare at my dog Ren and he avoids eye contact, he thinks I can’t see him. I’m not sure if that’s scientific fact or fiction, but I know that’s definitely the case for some people when it comes to email. In their minds, if they don’t look at it, it’s not really there.  

"Too busy." This one is definitely the most common, and is also the one I just don’t understand. I mean, I can appreciate being busy, but being unresponsive ultimately takes more time because you’re left constantly deleting follow up messages from the person you haven’t responded to.  

You’re just not worth their time. Unlike those who use avoidance, these offenders will look your email square in the subject line and decide not to respond. Not that they have a lot on their plate necessarily, it’s just that your request isn’t important enough to warrant their response.   

"I was traveling." No one expects you to respond to every email when you’re on the road, but if someone pings you for some time-sensitive information, I’m pretty sure you can find a few minutes to follow up. 

The solution is almost always quick and painless and can be boiled down into a few basic steps. 

Acknowledgement. Even if you have to gather some information before you can respond completely, at least send a brief email to let the person know you’re working on it. Or, if you are unable to help, just say so. One quick email can get you off the hook and also keep the person contacting you from repeated follow ups that ultimately make him or her look like a stalker. 

Pings. Again, sometimes you’re doing all the right things behind the scenes but the person waiting to hear from you thinks you dropped the ball because they haven’t heard from you. Get in the habit of sending period updates just to let them know you’re on it. 

Circle back. If you really want to go above and beyond the call of duty, follow up a few days later to see if they need anything else. Again, we’re talking 1-2 sentences, not a Harry Potter-length email.  

Prompt email follow up should be a part of your personal brand. It represents some of the blocking and tackling that separates rock stars from the rest of the pack. 

Shawn Graham is an Associate Director with the MBA Career Management Center at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job ( 

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