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If someone working on a document tells me he will email it to me tomorrow, and that I will have it by 10:00, how long after the deadline should I wait to follow up?

I feel that emailing (or worse, calling) at 10:01 would be rude, especially if he is putting the finishing touches on it or even attaching it to an email right then.

Waiting until the next day seems to say "Hey, I just noticed that you didn't send me this yesterday. I don't pay close attention, so it's OK not to send me things on time".

Does the time over the deadline I should wait vary depending on how far ahead it is promised? Does it depend on how urgent the delivery is for the overall project?

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How firm of a deadline was it and is this person aware of it? If I got a critical 10:00 AM dealline from my boss, at 10:01, I'd know who is calling. –  JeffO Oct 18 '12 at 17:40

6 Answers 6

up vote 26 down vote accepted

It's relative to how long you've been waiting in the first place.

What I mean is, if the deadline is June, and you set it back in January, it would be rude (over the top) to ring at 9.00am on 1st June, likewise, if someone tells you at 9.30am, that they will email you at 10.00am, the a follow up at 10.05am is probably not out of the question.

Also a good idea is to set up a review/follow up action when you're actually setting the deadline in the first place. (E.g. Email me the report at 10.00am and we'll meet with the client at 11.00am. This gives everyone an actionable item after the deadline, that is clear, and it gives you a viable reason to be following up things at 10.01am, if they're not complete.)

You will need to follow up immediately if it is the responsible thing to do with regards to your ability to meet your own responsibilities.

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How soon after should I follow up on a missed deadline?

You should ask before.

TL;DR. Actually, there's no need to read any further.
It would be silly if doctors asked, how soon after a patient has died should we measure up the body temperature. It would be a bad mechanic if they ask how soon after your car has fallen apart on a highway should they look under the hood.
So why do the businessmen even ask how long should they wait after a problem became evident?

Sorry if my answer is a bit contrary to everyone else's answers, but I really think deadlines should not be missed, normally.

A deadline is the very last time for getting job done.
In other words, the job must be done before the deadline, and, in exceptional cases, on the deadline.

Don't set yourself up for a failure. I don't say deadlines are carved in stone, no. If someone is close to missing deadline, they must do their best to contact you and review either the deadline or the scope of work. If they don't, you should expect everything is on track.

However, errare humanum est, so it is possible they are close to miss the deadline and kind of shy to come up with this to you. I think there's no issue if you take the lead and ask.


When to make this reminder? You should do it at the moment when there is still enough time for an urgent action to save the deadline. I think, @Stuart Helwig gave great explanation of relative periods, but I would apply this idea in a reverse order:

  • if at 9:00 you agree on a deadline at 10:00, contact at 9:55;
  • if on January/01 you agree on a deadline at March/31, contact on March/20;

Many answers here mention telling your reasons for the deadline. Actually, reasons are not needed for ability to fit the deadline. However, they are important part of negotiation about the deadline itself. As we know, a deadline must be result of a mutual agreement. Say, the other party says they can't match the deadline, so you have to negotiate. Explaining your reasons may reveal an alternative way to get the job done, e.g. change the scope and thus match the time constraint.


  • Negotiate your deadlines;
  • Make the other party able to suggest scope changes;
  • Communicate during the timeline (optional);
  • If any risk arises, review the deadlines or redefine the scope;
  • Communicate a bit before the deadline to check if everything is fine;
  • Enjoy the job done on time.
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Exactly. They are helping you by agreeing to do whatever it is, but they really, really hurt by not delivering. In many cases, a deadline for a long term effort has a few 'soft' deadlines, for review and correction opportunities. If they aren't meeting 'soft' deadlines, it would be wise to enact a contigency plan so you don't miss the 'hard' deadline. –  JustinC Nov 2 '12 at 5:48

Yes, I would say how long to wait depends on both how far ahead it is promised and how important or urgent the work is. It depends what the situation warrants.

Urgent and Important Deadlines
You should absolutely convey the importance of the deadline beforehand, and probably also check in once or twice just to check on whether we are still on track for reaching the deadline, especially if there is much time to elapse in between. A nice touch would also be to offer to see whether there are any hurdles you can help clear up for them, before the deadline to help them reach it. This will help more than following up after the fact.

Keeping in mind why the deadline is urgent may help determine how quickly to follow up. Are there people in the lobby waiting for this document? Do you need this document to conduct an interview that is scheduled for 10:15?

In many cases, if the document is needed within minutes of the deadline, you may want to call on the phone to quickly clarify whether the document is almost ready and on it's way, or being necessarily delayed as, presumably, at 10:01 they are still so completely focused on finishing up with the urgent document that they are not checking their email ;-).

If on the other hand, you need to do a 4 hour task that has a hard deadline in response to their document, waiting a half hour to an hour to follow up after the deadline, would still give you plenty of time to complete your work, while giving them adequate time to finish up.

Less Urgent Deadlines
It's quite possible they didn't get to it because it got pushed aside for more urgent projects, or perhaps they just forgot to actually put it on their todo list. In this case, your follow-up might be more along the line of politely reminding them suggesting a specific deadline extension. "I didn't see that report yet, just wanted to make sure it hasn't fallen off the radar. Would you like me to follow up again next Tuesday?" Something that if they are swamped they could just answer with a one liner. A week or more extension, if it's not a big deal for you, might be very helpful to the other person if they have more urgent deadlines.

In this scenario, several hours to a day later, or even a week, would not be an unreasonable amount of time to wait until after the deadline to follow up. Should you feel like following up much closer to the deadline, you could always blame your "outlook reminder" for reminding you to follow up, rather than leaving it to seem like you're hounding them to hurry up and finish.

In any case, how you word your response may make a world of difference in whether you sound annoyed they aren't done yet, concerned about their workload, understanding that they're busy, and so forth. So focus on the tone of your follow-up more than the when.

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As Stuart Helwig says in his fine answer, context is everything.

My own preference would be to have a gentle conversation part-way through the deadline, to ask how he's getting along, and if there's anything you can do to help him meet the deadline.

I'd also always recommend making it clear why you've set that deadline, and what the implications of him missing his deadline will be, not just for you but for the organisation as a whole.

If your colleague feels supported, and you've shared with him the reason for the work being needed such that he feels valued for his contribution, you're much more likely to get the work done on time than if you throw the task over the fence and chase it up on or shortly after the deadline.

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I think you're on the right track and I'm pulling together a few answers here. Reasons to follow up earlier rather than later:

  • Urgency - if it's on a critical path for a project, a part of a deliverable to high stakes stakeholders, or something a ton of people are waiting for - then figure it's urgent. Or if anyone with the right to say "this is urgent" says it's urgent.

  • Delta between assignment and deadline - if the guy said "I'll have that to you in 5 minutes" then following up in 10 is fine. If the last conversation was 3 months ago, giving it an hour or so isn't out of the question.

  • Culture (isn't it always?) - Different cultures have different ideas of time accuracy. In the military, I've seen people be accurate within less than 5 minutes. In offices where there are three nearby clocks with a 15 minute spread, then the accuracy seems to hover at a rough 10 minute spread for one guy's "1:05" is another's "1:15". Also, different cultures expect a different degree of time-based diligence. Usually it's fair to assume that the mainstream culture of this local will prevail, unless the company has explicitly changed it.

  • History - does this guy know it's urgent? Is he typically late with stuff? Have you decided to start pushing a bit more, because there've been too many 1 day slips? This can sometimes override culture, becuase a culture where everyone in a 5-10 man team slips by a day can result in a 1 week slip on anything of consequence... a norm that is well worth changing.

  • Power dynamic - are you the boss? If so, be aware that letting things slide can go farther to implicity setting norms.

There is no one right answer. I have worked on projects so hot and high priority that I literally (politely) chaperoned people from time of commitment to submission of deliverable to make sure they did not get interrupted. When a customer is waiting on a 4 hour turnaround and you're contractually obligated, sometimes you have to be beyond assertive.

In other cases, when 1 week later is no big deal, then I'll let it slide for a day or more...

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I'm going to leave a semi-simple answer here... the answer is you should contact the person. The normal time I give is between 15 to 30 minutes depending on the history with the person. If they are normally on time, closer to 15, if they normally need a nudge, 30. (I know it seems counter-intuitive but I let people suprise me sometimes)

It honestly comes down to your relationship with the person as well.

If they don't respond during that day (which if they are professional they should), contact first thing the next morning, and nudge. If they don’t respond, and you can go to them in person, I would.

Sometimes a direct approach in person is better than phone and email in the first place, it is harder to ignore you if you are in their doorway.

Now if the deadline has passed, contact the person through email/phone once an hour to once every two hours. Or go by his door every time you are up and about if you can to “poke your head in to see how it’s going”, because by then they are probably ignoring you.

As I’ve said before it’s hard to ignore a person if they are in your face unlike email which the delete button is a wonderful ignoring function. If this is the case, then I have a feeling you have more issues than just a late document with this person.

Hope this helps.

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