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One of my coworkers, coworker A, recently lost a family member and is on leave. The details of the leave were not discussed with us. We were only informed of the death. I reached out to my coworker and expressed my condolences when we first found out.

Later, I emailed coworker A and another one (coworker B) to ask something quick about a small project they are working on together. What I am asking is indirectly related to another task I will engage in. I clearly indicated that I did not need a response from coworker A and that my email could be ignored by coworker A.

Coworker B, in their response to me only, suggested we leave coworker A off of "emails like this" (not sure exactly what that means) and that they would check in with coworker A to catch them up later.

My question is: If a coworker is on bereavement leave, should I leave them off all non-urgent work emails, even if I clearly indicate I do not require any action from them?

I checked online for guidance on these issues, but all I can find is what to say about the person's loss and mention of helping them with their workload, which is already done as my supervisor assigned many of their tasks to others. I don't see anything about leaving them off of conversations though.

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    Was there anything in the email that coworker A would have needed to be aware of when they returned to work? Would not giving them a copy of the email (to look at whenever convenient for them) have made things harder for them or easier for them? Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 8:26
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    How long will the absence last? It’s different if they are only gone for a day or 2 vs a few weeks.
    – AsheraH
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 9:47
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    Why do you assume Coworker A even reads your email during their leave?
    – nvoigt
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 20:08
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    @nvoigt seems to me that OP made no such assumption. It was coworker B making that assumption. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:46
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    Rough location? There may be some culture-specific takes on this issue. Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 13:05

7 Answers 7

79

You should just carry on normally. There was no need to specifically say colleague A doesn't need to respond or anything else.

Unless given instruction by someone in authority to leave them out, it's a normal part of your communications. It's up to their side to make any changes to communication.

For example I often get an 'out of office' reply to emails. I don't change my mailing list on the strength of it. Only if formally told to. If the person should see the communication in the normal course of work, they'll see it when they return.

52

Email is Asynchronous

One of the great things about email is that it is asynchronous. Meaning, you send your message and the recipient can respond at a time of their choosing, or not at all. Technically almost all non-in-person human communications (except live phone calls) are asynchronous. However, while there is a strong temptation to respond immediately to a text message (or equivalent - WhatsApp, etc.), with email there is truly no need to do so, unless required operationally in a particular environment.

That has a lot of ramifications:

  • In a bereavement situation, you can send a message without there being an expectation of immediate response, knowing that the message will be available for the recipient to respond at a later time as needed. Common courtesy dictates making it clear in some way that "no reply is needed from the bereaved recipient", but sending the email itself is perfectly fine.
  • Unless prohibited by some other rule (e.g., if students are not supposed to be using their smart phones or personal email accounts during the school day and send an email in the middle of the day, that is a bit of a problem), you can send email whenever you feel like it. Remember an important email to your kid's school at midnight (this happened to me last week), send it at midnight. It doesn't matter that the recipient won't see it (unless they can't sleep, and get their work email at home, etc.) until several hours later. It also doesn't matter (as far as I am concerned) that they find out you like to send email in the middle of the night.
  • Vacation, other projects higher priority than yours, conferences, etc. - not your problem. Send the email anyway. If you know the coworker is out and/or unable to deal with your question now because of these other priorities, you can ceertainly make note of it in the email ("when you get back from vacation, let me know the status of XYZ") but no reason not to send the email.
  • The flip side is that if you need an immediate answer then email may not be the best solution. Because email is asynchronous, the recipient can ignore/not respond even when you think they have no reason not to respond right away.

Email is Persistent

Email sticks around. No guarantees, of course. A recipient can delete a message, file it away (in the right place or accidentally in the wrong place) or even have a system rule that automatically files or deletes your message without any direct action. But generally speaking, email messages stick around until they are processed in some way. Which means you don't have to worry that because you sent the message on Monday and the coworker won't be back from bereavement leave until Friday that the message won't be seen. They may have to work through a large backlog of messages, but they will get to it eventually.

Email is often a Permanent Record

A lot depends on both personal usage and archival capabilities, which vary a lot between different organizations. But at least at the basic level, email sticks around forever. If you send 3 updates on an urgent project while a coworker is out, those updates, along with earlier messages and later messages, form a record of your stated progress, how you are dealing with problems on the project, etc. If you leave a coworker out because you know they can't work on a project right now, they may be left with an incomplete record later on when they are able to help.

Different People Handle Bereavement in Different Ways

There was a major ongoing (weekly updates needed) project when my Dad passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were a number of things that needed to get done for a volunteer project every week, related to the pandemic, which one of my brothers and I did every Thursday night. Some other volunteers offered to take over for the week, but it would have been as much work to hand it over (training, etc.) as to continue doing it ourselves, so we did it ourselves, even though in a perfect world we would have let others do it that week, and other people in the same situation might have handled it differently. Even if we had handed it over to someone else for that week, emails would have come in and we would have had to take care of them or forward them to the correct people. If people simply didn't bother us at the time (and it is possible that some people did so) they may not have been able to get their own situations resolved in a timely manner, due to the unusual combination of events.

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    "Technically almost all human communications (except live phone calls) are asynchronous." -- well, a lot of human communication is talking face-to-face, live, and that doesn't appear to be particularly asynchronous. (Sure, it can be, but that would often be considered somewhat odd.)
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 20:14
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    @ilkkachu Correct! I meant, obviously, remote communication. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 22:11
  • Lol you should see me trying to multitask
    – Cullub
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 19:26
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    @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact, Sorry you lost your dad during the pandemic. It was the tough time for the whole world. Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 2:15
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    I like this answer, mostly because it reinforces that emails don't have to be responded to immediately. I also prefer receiving the out of office notice so that, at least folks know I sent the communication but I know they won't be responding anytime soon.
    – Makoto
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 20:19
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Send your colleague mail as normal, but note that you should not demand immediate action or acknowledgement.

Doing otherwise will either

  • result in a frozen backlog that you will have to later dispatch specifically to him (possibly also saying "this mail I've already sent to worker X, this other one is a thread sent to team T" (with all the complications of missed thread responses)); or
  • hold back important mail from him,

neither of which is good for either him, you or your company.

Unless your company policy says otherwise, just as with other leaves, it's on the bereaved to ignore all work communication he is allowed to ignore.

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The normal process is: You write and send the e-Mail as usual. The bereaved person can ignore work completely, including the e-Mail. Unless they decide they need something that deflects from the bereavement (bereavement is hard work) and decide to do something easier, like answering some emails.

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The office politics angle

In addition to the arguments made by the other answers as to why to continue emailing Coworker A as you have been doing, there's another reason to continue doing so: unless you know Coworker B well enough to be sure they aren't ruthlessly ambitious, there's the non-zero probability that Coworker B's offer to shield Coworker A and catch them up later only appears to be nice, and is an attempt to sabotage Coworker A's career for personal gain, which would be really easy if they 1) convince everyone to keep Coworker A out of the loop and then 2) incompletely/incorrectly fill Coworker A in when they get back in the office. I'm not saying this is happening, but if you keep Coworker A in the loop, you remove the possibility from the equation by not isolating them from what's going on in the team. Unfortunately office politics is real.

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    Good point. I were in situations before where I was the coworker left out of the loop and that's one of the reasons why I try to be inclusive about information being provided to others. Coworker B in this specific situation is also a bit of a know-it-all and forces his opinions on other people, and have done so on Coworker A, who is a more junior woman.
    – Jessie
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 18:16
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Use the CC Field

Something missed on the other answers is using the CC field.

I often have e-mails that I need to send out where I need to keep a lot of people in the loop (i.e. client, client's manager, project manager, related junior engineers, outside agency, etc.). However, I might only need a response from one of them, the only purpose of including the others is to keep them in the loop.

In my industry, I typically will handle this by preparing the e-mail as follows:

  • TO: Coworker B
  • CC: Coworker A

Dear Coworker B, please make sure you send me those TPS reports.

By writing my e-mails in this fashion, I make it clear that I only need a response from Coworker B. However, the response may impact Coworker A in some fashion, so it's important that they are copied and kept in the loop.

Furthermore, by using the CC field, Coworker B will see that Coworker A has been copied and it's generally good practice to continue that copying for responses. In other words, DON'T use BCC.

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When someone is on a bereavement leave, we should show respect, sympathy, condolences, caring, and kindness to the person who passed away, the bereaved coworker, and their whole family.

All work-related issues are not important to the bereaved coworker during this time.

My question is: If a coworker is on bereavement leave, should I leave them off all non-urgent work emails, even if I clearly indicate I do not require any action from them?

Simply leave that coworker off all work-related emails until he/she returns to work officially.

If there is a super urgent work-related issue, you can contact his team lead or his manager, and they will assign that issue to someone else in the team.

When the coworker returns to work, a few minutes of catching up among the team members would suffice to move forward to resolve the remaining issues.

I reached out to my coworker and expressed my condolences when we first found out.

That should be the only email you need to send the coworker during the bereavement period.

I checked online for guidance on these issues... I don't see anything about leaving them off of conversations though.

There is probably the unwritten rule to give people time and space to mourn the loss of their family member. During this difficult time, work is the last thing they have in their mind.

That unwritten rule may also be described as common courtesy.

A nuclear war won't happen, and also the company won't go bankrupted if the coworker is left out of the work-related emails during the bereavement period.


Sending many emails about many issues may not be a good solution for this situation:

What if you email him about 30 issues during bereavement, with tons of back-and-forth discussions among team members on each issue ? When he comes back to work, 20 issues are fixed, and 10 are not yet fixed. Then, he will have to spend hours to dig through tons of discussions. What a waste of time.

The simple solution is NOT to send him any email during bereavement, and when he comes back to work, he can simply ask the team lead "What is the most important issue that I need to work on now ?" The team lead will show him 1 issue and he will work on it. Done. Simple. Effective.


BTW, I have seen many people who are very careful not to send work-related emails to coworkers who are on honeymoons or long-planed vacations. They respect their coworkers' privacy and personal time in these cases, which is great.

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    Leaving people on leave out of emails will make it impossible for them to catch up, because not only were they on leave, they were cut off even from catching up. If they are on leave then they should simply not read their work email, but it should be waiting for them when they are ready. That is the point of email, asyncronous communication.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 7:38
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    @nvoigt You and Joe may be thinking of different jobs that have different relationships between email and work responsibilities. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 8:25
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    That's NOT the correct answer. There is no expectation that they check their e-mail or log in during the leave but at some point they will have to come back and catch up. This will be much more difficult if they can't plow through their e-mal backlog. It's also not practical: do you expect the name to be removed from every e-mail list that they are on (company, department, team, projects, bike-riding club, etc) and then re-add later? That's just not going to work
    – Hilmar
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 13:41
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    This could lead to big problems down the line as they can spot details that others might have missed when they get back and start catching up.
    – Joe W
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 15:02
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    I don't really get the analogy. We train new people because they are new, not because we purposefully kept them out of the conversation earlier.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 20:07

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