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Whenever I receive an email with a return receipt request, I feel somewhat slighted, like they don't trust that I will act on the email and want proof that I read it.

Is there any accepted etiquette toward this email feature? I have avoided using it myself.

  • Do you always reply to every email you get? You have to realize that they are probably covering their own rears. – acolyte Aug 7 '12 at 17:50
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    Related: pm.stackexchange.com/q/531/34 – jmort253 Aug 8 '12 at 1:34
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    I don't think anyone has mentioned that there's an option in MS Outlook (and I'm sure most other mail clients) to Never send a read receipt. I would be surprised if anyone in their right mind would choose either of the other two options. – oliver-clare Sep 5 '13 at 11:05
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    I got here because I'm searching for a polite way to ask for an email confirmation. The reason I'm want to ask though is not because I don't trust the person receiving my email, but rather for confirmation that the email was received and didn't get lost in their spam box or get stuck somewhere during delivery. I equate it as just wanting a "Roger that, Message Received." confirmation, so that I can unload that responsibility from my brain and know that everything is running smoothly. TLDR: Communication is two ways. P.S. I don't think outlook asking for receipt confirmation is the way to go – Mallow Sep 29 '14 at 15:06
  • Maybe include a question in your email? – JoelFan Sep 29 '14 at 17:14
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Return receipts (RR) is maybe the most worthless feature of emailing.

People often briefly read first sentences of emails and then get back to it later. Personally, I have all incoming emails marked "for follow up" and then I manually unmark them as soon as I do what I'm supposed to (or if there's no action required).

It's also useless for mass sending, because it's important to see who has not received/read it rather than who did. And I'm not aware about email client tools marking who of the recipients of a sent message. If you send an email to 20 recipients and get 19 RR, who's the one who has not received it?

Everyone's job is not reading emails, but acting. Consequently, emailing is a tool for making your work effective. RR flags add no value to how people do their job. They only reduce (not eliminate) chances that an email has been lost due to technical reasons.

Risking to be downvoted, but dare to say - ignore it, unless your corporate culture specifically addresses RR policy. If it does, it would also tell what to do when you read a certain email briefly, planning to get back to it later. If not, ask the manager who's responsible for that policy.

  • @LordScree - personally, I just leave it unread if it truly needs to be followed-up; if it's marked as read, there's nothing left for me to do – warren Sep 27 '13 at 17:50
  • @warren It depends on the software. I use Outlook 2010, and it (1) has no possibility to completely cancel auto-mark-as-read (only a large timeout), and (2) upon answering (e.g., "I have read your email and working on it") it ultimately marks the original email as read. – bytebuster Sep 27 '13 at 19:20
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    @bytebuster - I right-click and select "Mark as Unread" in Outlook 2010, myself. As to your first point, I believe you're incorrect: File->Options->Advanced->Reading Pane Options will bring a pop-up that allows you to uncheck ways of marking items as read. Uncheck the second box, and when you change from one message to another without opening it, ie just in the Reading Pane, it will not show as read. – warren Sep 27 '13 at 19:42
  • I would add to this info list the comment from LordScree on the OP question - you can set Outlook and other programs to never send the read receipt. Probably if you do this, it's not like the other person would complain. I mean, assuming you follow up then that's that. If you don't, they should come back to say "you didn't follow up yet and I need the response" or whatever and NOT come around saying "oh I noticed your mail client didn't send a read receipt back to me..." – Brandin Aug 19 '14 at 9:41
  • one of the best features of Outlook: automatically reject RR requests :) – jwenting Aug 20 '14 at 6:39
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Probably the first guideline is - "don't take it personally".

I've seen it done for all sorts of reasons good and bad, including:

  • An epidemic issue of unread mails - particularly blanket updates - where the lack of absorbed information is causing gaps. It's a good way to id the demographic who hasn't read the mail.

  • A crisis or other urgent issue that cannot allowed to slip - the sender would do it to anyone, it's that important.

  • An uncertainty about who the receiver should be.

  • Can happen more in geographically displaced teams where you can't just swing by and don't want to be as intrusive as a phone call.

I would suggest considering the context for each read receipt - does one person just do it habitually? Did it just start happening with a given situation or person - perhaps the project just got more critical? If you see a change, I don't think it's bad form to ask - especially if you couch it as solving a problem - "I see you put a read receipt on this - what's the urgency of this?"

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    +1 for "don't take it personally". Some people do this automatically with every email they send. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 8 '12 at 17:22
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    @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner - some people do do it automatically for everything; I still never send them in response – warren Sep 27 '13 at 17:50
2

Like any tool, read receipt can be used as a tool for providing great service or it can be used as a tool for passive-aggression.

As a project manager, I often have to maintain quite a few different communication paths with different people from different departments, and managing this communication alone can be quite daunting.

Learn from Expert Sales Teams

One thing I've learned from working on software products that track leads and help sales teams convert more sales is that response time is critical. The MIT Lead Response Study says the following:

The odds of qualifying a lead in 5 minutes versus 30 minutes drop 21 times. And from 5 minutes to 10 minutes the dial to qualify odds decrease 4 times.

Basically, the first 5 minutes are critical for a very profound reason: The person whom you are reaching out to is actively thinking about your product or service. Wait 10 minutes, and that person may move onto other things. Call later, and you're likely to interrupt.

Apply Lead Response to Read Receipts

So, how exactly does that apply to read-receipts, you ask? Well, we might not be trying to sell something, but the psychology is still the same. When you as the sender get that read receipt confirmation from the email you sent to Bob, you know that Bob is now actively thinking about whatever it is that you sent him. Pick up the phone and call him, and you're less likely to interrupt. Instead, you're more likely to catch Bob in the mode to discuss whatever problems you both are trying to solve.

Using read-receipt in this manner can lead to much more productive interactions, as well as the same "wow" effect that sales teams experience when they call a potential customer while that person is actively thinking about the problem they're trying to solve.

Thus, if you get emails requesting read-receipt, stop thinking that they're out to get you. This person just may be trying to do a better job at managing his or her communications. If you are a person who uses read receipts in this manner, be sure to communicate why you are requesting read receipts as this will help curb any misunderstandings.

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I know it gets misused/abused. I wonder if we should consider the sender is trying to make the response a little more convenient. There are situtions where if you haven't received the email by a certain time, I'll know you're not available and may want to assign it to someone else. Sometimes management forgets that they didn't buy a Blackberry for everyone.

Too bad it can't be an acceptable way to save the trouble of sending a one word reply. Personally, I've gotten out of the habit.

Consider the Source

HR and some legal departments may do it because they consider it better than nothing. Just like clicking "Accept" to an agreement, we know most people didn't read it.

There's little choice if it comes from a superior or a customer. Maybe they are micromanaging or maybe if one person on the team can't get to it in time, they'll send a request to someone else.

I don't think collegues or outside business partners should use it unless there is some policy or mutual agreement on its use. You'll know when someone is trying to cover their backside.

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I would like to add my answer by first by highlighting this point from @jmort253

Pick up the phone and call him, and you're less likely to interrupt. Instead, you're more likely to catch Bob in the mode to discuss whatever problems you both are trying to solve.

I think this should be used very carefully. At a recent training conference on communication it was highlighted how annoying it is to call someone (an interruption), when you have also sent an email (another interruption).

Keep in mind that in Outlook (I assume others, but have yet to find another client with this feature), there is an option to "Always send a read receipt" - if this is enabled by the end user you are now even (further) interrupting them.

At my workplace (a bank), read receipts are an epidemic. There is no stated policy, people are using them for one of two reasons, based on my own survey of colleagues and management:

  1. They don't trust the email system, so this consider this proof of delivery.
  2. They want to know who "reads their email" (especially when there is a large copy list).

I personally applied the following policy, just to prevent the deluge of prompts from Outlook:

  1. For all emails where I am in cc, I don't sent a receipt.
  2. For all emails where I am in the recipient list ("To"), I sent the receipt only if the email is from my manager or relating to an active project.
  3. All other requests are judiciously rejected with much frantic mouse clicking.
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I used to use read receipts (judiciously, as they can indeed be annoying) when I was sending out a lot of procedural documentation, 'these are the rules' mails, and time-sensitive tasks. The primary reason for using the read receipt was to try and avoid a situation where an individual would disclaim all responsibility for a missed deadline, broken rule, or undone work with the excuse of not having received or read the relevant email. This was something that happened in that team with frustrating regularity (which says something about the team), and would either leave me scrambling to make up missed work myself or potentially make the organisation vulnerable to contractual penalties in the case of broken rules. If the sender requires an acknowledgement that you have received the email and understood the request/assignment/deadline, clicking Yes on a read receipt is a lot quicker for you than composing an email response.

Having said that, I happily click No to sending RRs if I can't see any business necessity for the sender to know I've read it, for example if I've been copied into a mass mail that's not relevant to me, or someone's put a receipt request on something inane. I've had a few colleagues who seemed to put them on everything, which is excessive. I would also consider it bad etiquette for a junior employee to request a read receipt on a direct email to senior staff or management as it tends to imply both that the junior feels entitled to decide what's important, and that they do not trust the manager to do their job.

A general rule of thumb, then, would be to assume that managers probably have a legitimate (to them) reason for requesting receipts, and to send the receipt once you have read the email and either understood the information or put the task in your to-do list.

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    This does not really answer the question "Is there an accepted etiquette", it's just some anecdotes. – Jan Doggen Aug 19 '14 at 11:10
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    I normally just decline to respond to the read receipt. Good Luck trying to prove I didn't read the email. – Donald Aug 19 '14 at 16:48

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