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My boss and I sit in different remote sites, several thousands of miles apart. We don't see each other often.

On several occasions in the last few months, I have sent him emails asking him for things like vacation or other resources. Typically, if I ask him to provide me with something, he doesn't respond.

How should I proceed when my boss does not respond when I ask him for something? Should I send him a reminder email? Or should I try to call him? I think everything would be easier if he sat in the same location so that I can ask him directly in person where not giving an answer is simply not an option.

I absolutely hate when people stonewall me or avoid answering a request they find inconvenient. I would much rather get a straight no. If I insist on revisiting the issue after his ignoring, will that be considered as "unwillingness to read unspoken communication", which is an "offense" I had been accused of in a previous job? In my case, it is not an inability but straight out unwillingness because I insist on straightforward communication and I refuse to take hints so I act as though I don't get them. Or will I come off as simply annoying?

I would like to institute a policy of getting clear communication, even if that means a no. I want him to say no rather than simply avoiding the question.

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By "different locations" do you mean that it's not practical for you to visit your boss, or just that it's not something that normally happens? My normal response to an ignored email would be a phone call or a visit. –  Mσᶎ Apr 2 at 21:55
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several thousands of miles apart –  amphibient Apr 2 at 22:04
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@amphbient: that does make walking over to chat a bit difficult. –  Mσᶎ Apr 2 at 22:07
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Tagged 'remote', since 'different locations' doesn't convey 'several thousands of miles apart' adequately. –  smci Apr 3 at 3:34
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Hey @smci, thanks for the edit. To make it a bit easier on the person reviewing your suggestion in the future, could you explain where you got the information you're adding? If you pointed out that you are adding info from the comments to the question, it's a lot quicker/easier to process. Thanks in advance! –  jmac Apr 3 at 6:26

9 Answers 9

up vote 77 down vote accepted

When you are missing a response from your boss, the very worst thing you can do is exactly what you did last time. They say that insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results. So don't just send the same email or forward it with a meaningless intro like "still need an answer on this" or "any update?"

You need to figure out (by asking, or by observing) why your boss is not answering your emails and then fix that. It could be any of these:

  • your boss hates typing and thinks it would be quicker to talk (but then doesn't get around to it)
  • your boss doesn't want the response to be "on the record" with email
  • your boss sees no urgency or need for a response
  • your boss sees no question or anything that requires a reply
  • you had several questions in the email and the boss has answered one or more (but not all). The boss thinks of the email as "dealt with" while you're still waiting for an answer.
  • you had several questions in the email and while the boss could answer one or more of them, at least one is not-so-answerable and the boss is delaying replying to the email until a reply can be written to the entire email.
  • your boss hopes by not answering that you will stop asking without actually being refused
  • your boss has things to do that are genuinely more important than your stuff
  • your boss has things to do that appear more important than your stuff, because you haven't explained why your stuff is important
  • your boss is busy failing at this job and doesn't answer emails from anyone, and will be gone soon as a result

So, first of all, look at your email. A good one starts with a single sentence that summarizes everything:

I am booking Sept 2nd-10th off next Tuesday unless you tell me that's not possible.

I cannot proceed on the Smith project until you tell me whether we are including the file option or not.

I need a short meeting with you and Tony to settle some design issues and I can't move forward until they are settled.

After that, lay out the background that the boss might need, and close with a very clear call to action. It should also respect (or ask about) the communication style this boss wants - a formal meeting? just grab each other in the hall some day? a four-way email chain? - everyone has their own preferences and you mostly have to work with the preferences of the most important person in the conversation.

Whenever possible, set the defaults and tell your boss what they are. That way if you don't get an answer, you can go ahead. If you make the default "I won't book my vacation" then a boss who doesn't want you to go on vacation doesn't need to say no, just needs to stay quiet. If you make the default "I will book my vacation" then if you don't hear back, you go ahead and book it. That means the boss has to answer or you get your way. (Don't go overboard with this. Declaring that you will work from home, that from now on you work 30 hours a week for the same pay, or from now on you fly first class everywhere you go will likely lead to a lot of trouble. But for sensible requests, establish a default you will like, and one that minimizes the effort for your boss to give you what you want.) You and Tony disagreeing on how to do something? You could make the default that you'll do it your way, or that you'll stop working on it until a decision gets made. If the default is you'll do it Tony's way, why should the boss get involved?

Smart emails get responses. Even smarter ones let you still move forward without a response.

If you absolutely cannot move forward without a response, and you made that clear but still got no answer, when you re-send the email you can re-emphasize that.

I stopped working on the report section on Thursday and I've been doing some other things, but will run out of tasks on this project tomorrow. At that point the schedule will start to slip. I would really like to settle these design issues today. Details in my email from last week, below. Can we meet this afternoon for 30 minutes? Tony should probably be there too.

Now you're not doing the same thing - you are adding details, you are providing consequences to not answering, and you are being super clear about what you need and why you need it.

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Your answer is better than the one I was working on, which was mostly saying to communicate in the way the boss prefers, which may not be email. You say that too, as part of your more comprehensive and better reply. –  thursdaysgeek Apr 2 at 22:31
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Excellent, the only other thing I would add is that it is often useful to have a scheduled, regular, informal meeting (or phone appointment) with the boss. That way one can address things that need a response but which might require some nuance or tact or which might otherwise get ignored. –  teego1967 Apr 3 at 0:19
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+1 " set the defaults and tell your boss what they are. That way if you don't get an answer, you can go ahead"...simply genius. I have the same problem once in a while and I can't believe I didn't see this. Why can't we vote +10 on the same answer? –  Fixed Point Apr 3 at 7:47
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Hi Kate, I don't have a business but I'd start one to hire you. –  DaveDev Apr 3 at 14:32
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My boss is fine, but I have to remind other departments about deadlines or get input from them. My general method is to remind and ask in the first email. If I get no response, I call. If that doesn't work or if too many calls would be required, I send a second email with, "If I don't hear back by X, then I am going to proceed by doing Y." Then (usually within half an hour) I get panicked emails and phone calls, and I can watch as tasks get completed. Some people just don't consider it important until their inaction has consequences. It's still important to start out courteous, though. –  Bacon Bits Apr 3 at 17:45

For most minor requests not replying to an email is just annoying, and I'd resend the email then follow up a day later with a phone call. The advantage of the phone call is that once your boss picks up the phone they can't "forget" to answer your question. You also get a bit more information from their manner and tone of voice about why they're reluctant to answer.

(edit) It sounds as though you often find yourself not comfortable accepting hints rather than a straight answer. What I do there is push for an explicit response a couple of times, then let it go when I can. For minor stuff I will often say "it sounds as though you're ok with that so I'm going to go ahead", putting the other person in the position of having to explicitly disagree with me if they don't want me doing whatever it is. But you need to pick your battles on this, and be a little careful that you don't end up pushing past their boundaries too much.

The things to be really careful of are where your boss is trying to give you leeway that isn't officially there. If you ask "can I start early and finish early most days" when your company has an policy of 9-5, then your boss might say "oh, as long as you get your work done and don't annoy people, you know". What that means is "if I have to answer I have to say no, but I think it's a silly rule so I'm going to avoid enforcing it unless you make me". (/edit)

With leave requests it's a more formal thing. You can't take the leave unless you get a reply. So it's perfectly reasonable to contact HR (or whoever deals with leave if you don't have HR) if you don't get a response to your second email. Sure, you're escalating, but that's the appropriate thing to do.

The first time you go past your boss I suggest making it something important, like a leave request (rather than, say, a new stapler), just so it's really obvious that you need an answer.

It gets tricky if there's no HR department and no-one obvious to talk to about your leave. In that case you have to go over your boss's head to his direct boss, and that's not normally a good thing to do. So you need to have it organised and documented. What's the problem, what have you done to fix it, what do you want your boss's boss to do?

There's two related issues you want to present, first the general problem:

  • Problem: my boss ignores my requests for leave and resources.
  • my actions: example of leave request email, example of resource request email. Each sent twice, followed up with phone call. No useful result either time.
  • Desired outcome: procedure for me to follow when an email request is not responded to.

The second issue is the more specific one:

  • Problem: I want to take leave but my request has been ignored.
  • My actions: emailed request twice, rang twice, no result.
  • Desired outcome: super-boss approves my leave request

It might be necessary to explain that there are two issues, and the leave is an example of the general issue. Some people are not good with this kind of meta-problem, and will address the immediate issue only. In that case you might be better off asking "what do I do if this happens again", rather than trying to go through the first problem/action/outcome series again.

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There are lots of answers to this question already, but I felt rather strongly about this question and have created an account on this Stack site just to provide my own opinion on it.

You never actually state how big your workplace actually is.

I work for a global telecommunications company, which operates out of 170 countries. My manager is on the other side of the world to me (I'm in Northern Ireland, he's in India). When I email him, I frequently don't get responses.

But here's the thing. He is receiving hundreds of emails an hour. He has over 15,000 unread emails in his Inbox. It's not a simple case of saying he's not doing his job properly. Given the size of the company, his seniority within the company and the complexity of the role he has, he is simply inundated with information on a constant basis. Whilst it can be a frustrating situation, it's the nature of the beast with such a large company.

Therefore, this is how I handle it. If I want time off for something, I send him a meeting request for a week, simply stating that's my holiday time. As his Calendar, like many senior managers, dictates his life, he will notice it. For almost any other urgent enquiry, I'll ping him on MS Lync or call him. But all other actions which aren't urgent I can either wait for a response and if I don't receive one, I can casually bring it up on our weekly/biweekly team knowledge calls (which should be taking place if you're that far apart, just to touch in with what has been happening).

If I'm completely stuck with an issue and he hasn't responded by email, I don't get frustrated and wonder what to do next. I escalate it! I wouldn't go straight to HR to complain or fret about how I've worded my email - not because those things aren't important, but because I could be making an absolute mountain out of a molehill.

I'll simply try a different approach to get in touch with my manager (i.e. Lync/calling), discuss what I want to discuss and find out if there's a different form of communication he prefers or would be quicker to respond to. I always find this is the best way to approach a situation rather than panicking unnecessarily first.

If you still can't get in touch, try and figure out why. Is he deliberately avoiding you, in which case I would say go to HR. Is he too busy? If so, what are the standard policies in the workplace for escalation? Find them out and follow them. Also bear in mind the size of the company and your manager's workload. In my case, it's unreasonable to expect a response to anything but an absolute priority (i.e. a major system failure) within a few hours. So if I want to email him about, for example, time off - I wouldn't do it the day before I wanted it. It would be completely unreasonable to expect a response in that timeframe.

The key thing in any workplace is to know the rules and simply follow them. If you do that, you're doing nothing wrong. Rest assured in that fact.

One final point:

I insist on straightforward communication and I refuse to take hints so I act as though I don't get them.

If this is your attitude, confirm any communication you have. If you feel you are being hinted something, simply repeat back what you think you're being asked to do and ask for confirmation.

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If you need a response on something, forward your previously-sent email and ask if your boss has seen said email. If it's important, use the Important flag.

If you don't get a timely response, send your boss a fresh email asking what the best way to contact him/her is. Tell your boss you want to be effective in your communications and use the most convenient method for him/her.

Still no response? Forward all emails to HR and ask them what you should do to help with communication with your boss.

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this is exactly what i wanted to do. i just resent him one of the emails as per your suggestion in the first sentence. however, i am very reluctant to resort to HR as that may cause antagonism and drama –  amphibient Apr 2 at 21:45
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If you can't get a response from your boss, it is your boss causing the drama. You are trying to do your job, and your boss is being passive aggressive at best, and negligent at worst. –  Garrison Neely Apr 2 at 21:54
    
yeah, i wanted to use the term "passive aggressive" in OP but i've been accused of ranting on this site before for using similarly descriptive terms –  amphibient Apr 2 at 22:10

You should reply to your original email and ask the question again. Also specify when you need the answer, and what you will do if you don't get an answer.

You probably need to have a regular meeting with your boss. It could be as simple as a half-hour every two weeks. This gives you a regular touchpoint so that you can discuss things like this. It also gives you an opportunity to discuss the overall problem of the best way to get answers from him when you need them. If email isn't the best way to communicate with him, then what is? You should present it as how you can be more effective in communicating with him, and brainstorm ideas that both you and he can do to address this issue.

Don't bring in baggage from previous positions, at least not explicitly. You can use this issue with your boss to try to address the overall problem of not always doing a great job of reading between the lines. It's part of your boss's job to help you be effective at your job, which is both about the skills associated with your job as well as the skills associated in working with other people.

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Call him.

It is easy to ignore an email but it's much harder to evade a question when asked over the phone.

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Why the downvote? Just because my answer is concise? Do I really need to add three paragraphs of meaningless chit-chat? –  Philipp Apr 4 at 8:44
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I assume, the down vote comes from the fact, that your answer does not really address at least those parts of the question that are about policy and about reading unspoken communication. And what you're suggesting has been suggested in a more elaborate way that covers all aspects of the question already. The down voter may assume you haven't read past the title of the question and thus reacted with that vote. These are just guesses as to the reason though - I don't actually know the reason. –  CMW Apr 4 at 9:04

First and foremost you need to figure out why your boss is ignoring you. If it's as simple as a boss who is overwhelmed or not organized and is overlooking emails or not reading all their emails (like one of my previous bosses), and it's not personal against you, make it simple for them, i.e. "up-manage them". Instant message them. Call them. Text them. Email them again, but put the precise, concise request in the subject line, so they don't even have to even open the email. Call their secretary or admin assistant, if they have one. I'd be humble about it all though, with something along the lines of "I know you're extremely busy, so I'm trying to minimize the amount of time I need from you...".

If you can, put a read receipt on your emails—that way you know if they're being read. Use this with caution though, as some email programs alert the recipient there's a read receipt on the email and some company cultures frown upon this approach. If your boss is reading your emails, but not replying, don't automatically assume it's personal—they may genuinely be overwhelmed with work—but it gives you some information to ponder over at least.

I really would avoid escalating, if at all possible. However, if the ignoring is personal toward you, you may need to. Know though, this could have adverse effects on your career in that company and even in that industry, if it's an intimate enough industry.

Remote working is hard. I know, I've done it for the past 7 years. Everyone thinks it's a picnic, but generally those are the people who've never done it and sit in envy of those who have or those who are and are taking advantage of their employer's generosity.

Two of the key things for successful remote working are communication and relationship building. Preferably daily, but at least weekly, two-way communication between you and your boss (and your co-workers) is a must-have with remote working. It doesn't have to be formalized, but it does have to be understood and practiced by all and if it's not happening naturally, formal procedures need to be put in place to make it happen. Without it, the company suffers, but most importantly, you, the remote worker suffers.

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I've found that the easiest way to handle this is to word requesting e-mails with your default intentions (whatever you think is the best course of action). So, for instance when you need a choice between two alternatives made, say:

Boss, I need to know whether to do X or Y. If I don't hear back from you by Tuesday, I'll do X.

You can then safely assume that if he doesn't respond, he wants you to do X. If he does want X done, then he doesn't have to do anything, but if he wants Y done, then he has to get back to you, and he can't well say that he didn't know what you were doing.

I've found this to work well with an overloaded boss.

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The best email ever consists of one word. Use this when you re-send a previously unanswered email.

to: boss

followup?

Send this when you need to, and resend it when you need to, numerous times. No emotions, no ranting, no choice adjectives. Hint, probably not a good idea to send this more than once/day.

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is this only your opinion or you can back it up somehow? –  gnat Apr 4 at 11:52
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I have received emails like these. I detest them. Look, there's a reason the first one wasn't answered. If that reason is "I'm busy and occasionally absent minded" then this approach works. For any other reason (defects in your mail, other important stuff to do, your project isn't urgent yet) this approach is useless because it doesn't give the boss any reason to even read your first email, never mind answer it. Add information. Explicitly ask for the thing you want (decision, meeting, etc) again. Help the boss to answer you and motivate the boss to answer you. Not a generic reminder. –  Kate Gregory Apr 4 at 12:34
    
Opinion, no. It's a concept first offered by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish on communication skills. The concept is simple. "Say it with a word" (a single word). That keeps emotion out of the conversation. Try it, this totally works. Now obviously the assumption is that in this case, the original sender is competent, uses their own initiative and can and does write a coherent and succinct email. (So yes, if an idiot sends me a followup email like this, I'd be miffed too...) And Kate, if you are receiving emails like these, what does that say, really? –  zipzit Apr 5 at 23:31

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