Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Should You Acknowledge Every Email?

a woman typing on a laptop with way too many emails

When it comes to email, the moment where proper etiquette morphs into a pet peeve is difficult to pinpoint. How many exclamation points are too many?!!!!! The correct answer is: more than one.

Should you use the HIGH PRIORITY button? The correct answer is: No. Never. Okay, maybe if you’re about to mauled by a bear, but otherwise, no.

Should I respond to every email? The correct answer is: … … …

Peter Sellers impatiently waiting in Pink Panther
waiting… waiting… waiting for a response…

I get bombarded with ridiculous emails on a daily basis. I say ridiculous because many of them are unsolicited and many are irrelevant. Maybe those qualify as spam and nearly all of us agree spam doesn’t require a response. But many of these are PR folks who do address me by name and copy paste something marginally related to what we cover here at Going Concern. So?

GAH! I ignore them, I admit it. And I don’t feel the least bit bad about it. On occasion, I’ve responded and it turns into more badgering despite my obvious disinterest. Sorry, but it’s not an uncommon plight for bloggers and journalists. A couple of years ago, one guy chronicled his experience responding to every PR pitch for an entire week which  sounds like a gigantic waste of time, but it did turn into a decent piece of writing.

But you people are accountants; you’re here to serve internal and/or external clients. You have deadlines, other professional responsibilities and irritable co-workers so sending a response to every single message seems perfectly logical, what’s 542 more emails in everyone’s inboxes anyway?

Oh, who am I kidding. This is what the accountants’ email inbox is actually like:

Q. I’ve recently learned that a colleague who sends me regular reports is upset with me because I never acknowledged receiving them. What’s considered appropriate when it comes to acknowledging receipt of an email? Should recipients always reply to let senders know you received their email?

A. I’m certainly not an email etiquette expert, but I like this question because I do find it a little frustrating when I send someone important information and the recipient doesn’t respond to let me know he or she has received it. Without acknowledgement, I grow concerned that perhaps the email did not go through, and if so, it may appear that I’m not doing my job timely or properly. A simple reply stating “got it,” “received it,” or “thank you” might relieve my worries. So, yes, I do think it is polite and appropriate to acknowledge receipt of valid emails as soon as possible.

As we’ve discussed, not everyone agrees. In fact, many people don’t appreciate your “thank you” email at all! So we have a conundrum. Let’s talk it out, shall we?

Someone doesn’t like being left on read eh.

LinkedIn co-founder Jeff Weiner — who probably gets more emails than anyone reading this — says, yes, you should acknowledge receipt of emails:

If the email sender has taken the time to address you in the To: line (and it really was intended for you vs. what should have been a Cc:), take the time to acknowledge you received it. The response doesn’t need to be a diatribe. To the contrary, the fewer words the better, e.g. “Thanks,” “Got it,” “Makes sense,” etc. This lets the sender know you received the message, don’t need any additional information or context, and thus they can check it off their list.

If you don’t respond, they’ll have no idea whether or not they’ve been heard. Not only will this create worry about whether or not you received it, it is likely to generate another email with fundamentally the same content, but this time a number of additional people in the To: line in the hopes they’ll respond given you didn’t.

Business etiquette expert Barbara Paschter says that you should reply to all emails, even if they weren’t intended for you.

It’s difficult to reply to every email message ever sent to you, but you should try to, Pachter says. This includes when the email was accidentally sent to you, especially if the sender is expecting a reply. A reply isn’t necessary but serves as good email etiquette, especially if this person works in the same company or industry as you.

Here’s an example reply: “I know you’re very busy, but I don’t think you meant to send this email to me. And I wanted to let you know so you can send it to the correct person.”

However, productivity expert Peggy Duncan disagrees:

Replying to an email with “Thanks” or “OK” does not advance the conversation in any way. “You don’t have to answer every email,” says Duncan, who takes a moment to analyze our email conversation. When I asked Duncan if she was free at 3 p.m. to chat, she replies yes and sent me her phone number.

“A lot of people would have replied ‘Okay, great, talk to you then’” says Duncan—an unnecessary email that simply clogs up someone’s inbox and doesn’t contribute anything to the conversation.

Then there’s this guy:

Reply — No matter what. Acknowledge promptly that you received a message. If no particular response is required, just say “thanks.” If you own an “action item” but can’t get to it for a while, let the sender know you saw the message and estimate when you expect to reply. But don’t let mail pile up in your inbox without acknowledging its receipt.

And another guy:

All you have to do is lose one piece of business, miss one deadline — or show up to one meeting that the other person doesn’t come to to easily waste 30 minutes or more in preparation and travel time to experience the benefit of replying first-hand.

A quick reply, saying ‘I’ll have an answer for you tomorrow’, ‘Yes’ and/or ‘Thank you’ is polite and a simple, time efficient way to be build relationships AND be motivating.

In fact, besides the “Your thank you email is not appreciated” and the productivity expert above, I had a hard time finding a lot of support for, “Nah, you don’t have to respond to every email.”

My suggestion? If you’re an accountant you should probably respond to every email, just to be on the safe side. Otherwise you risk being the cause of someone’s busy season nightmare and no one wants that. As public accounting is all about working well with others, you could always bring it up to your team and come up with a loose rule that everyone is happy with. Does your senior keep an infinite spreadsheet of all open items and to whom each issue is assigned? Maybe an “OK” would be nice. Is your senior suffering from burnout and could be pushed off the edge by a single email? Maybe keep your OKs to yourself.

Presumably people who absolutely must know you’ve received an email could always set up their Outlook read receipts but…well that’s not a perfect solution either because you’re only telling them it hit your inbox, not that you have carefully reviewed the information.

Email etiquette [Published April 1, 2016 in Journal of Accountancy]