Why Do They Ignore My Email?

If you are asking yourself this question, I’m here to help.

You Are Frustrated

You have been sending your team email for a long time. Some people on the team are good at responding and others…well let’s just say they don’t seem to be as “on top of it”.

You were talking about a specific topic in a meeting, and half the room didn’t know what you were talking about. “Didn’t you get my email?” you chided in frustration.

What’s wrong here?

How Can I Make Them Read My Email?

You can’t.

And you’re going about this the wrong way. The problem is you, not them.

Email can be great for certain types of communication, but in my opinion it is an overused means of communicating, especially when so many of us have the option to walk over or get on the phone and talk to someone directly. It can be a great method of communicating when the needs are asynchronous and when people are disconnected geographically, but in general it gets overused in my experience.

I have been guilty myself of not fitting the communication channel to the situation.

Email is Easy

For some people, sitting down in front of a computer and typing an email is much easier than walking across the hall to chat with a co-worker. This can be especially true when the topic is charged, or if you are in conflict with the person on the other end. Ironically, these are the times when it’s most important to not rely on email, because the power of direct communication is often the best way to resolve issues of any kind.

Pareto’s Email

It’s likely that 80% of email in organizations is ineffective and would be better served via a face-to-face or phone conversation. The categories of email that may pass as prudent include sending meeting agendas and minutes, sending files, and when you are on totally separate schedules from those with which you want to communicate. It could be argued that there are better means of collaboration and communication even in these cases too.

The Missing Feedback Loop

One of the biggest problems I see with email is a missing feedback loop. If you are chatting with someone you can make sure they understood you, and that you understood them. Tones of voice and body language play a role and more information is communicated.

With email, a vast chunk of it goes out and the author assumes everyone who was on the list 1) read it, 2) understood fully, and 3) cares about what you had to say. It’s the “silence is golden” philosophy which, in my opinion, is a bad philosophy.

What do you think?

photo by Kevin Lawver

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Being a remote team member, I’ve resolved recently to pick up the phone 2-3 more times a day — before sending an email. Voice to voice is better. Video-based chat might be best, so going to explore that more, too.

Mindy Giberstone

Yes, you have to communicate with people in ways they are comfortable with. Its a 2 way street though. And it is wasteful to print documents and walk them to a coworker simply because they can’t or won’t use email. My state has a mandate to reduce the amount of paper consumed. Email and other forms of file sharing are not going away. Simply being the “guy that won’t read emails” makes you a dinosaur.


Also there is an art to:

-Good subject lines
-Clear call to actions – what you want people to do

-Keeping it short

-Resend resend (don’t be afraid to send more thatn once)

Joe Flood

It always surprises me that people don’t answer their email, when it seems like that’s a basic responsibility of work. But some people will just ignore you because they’re swamped or just because they can. In that case, you should really make it clear what you need and why it’s in their interest to respond to you.

Josh Nankivel

@Andrew, love it. I still catch myself starting to do an email or IM when I could just go over and talk to someone. It depends though, sometimes I don’t want to interrupt them either. In those cases I add a card to the ‘for discussion’ bucket on our team kanban board. Then we discuss it in the daily tag-up.

Josh Nankivel

@Mindy, totally agree on the printing thing. Some team members still like the feel of paper, but I always take some kind-hearted jabs at them about killing trees and I think I’m slowly weaning them off of printing, at least when they want to discuss something with me. 🙂

Josh Nankivel

@GovLoop perfect. I’ll admit I don’t resend, but in many ways writing a good blog post or article is a transferable skill set to email. I know that personally, after blogging for 6 years my email communication is much more effective.

Josh Nankivel

@Joe I see what you mean, but the reality is some people don’t. I’ve been guilty of sending an email and relying on a response as a reminder to follow up…and when there’s no response, I forget about the topic entirely. So, that’s not a good plan.

What I’ve found is that with some people, sending an email and then walking over or picking up the phone to draw attention to it and discuss works. In other cases, people respond better when I have the conversation first and then follow it up with an email, especially to reinforce and document the decision we reached.

Raymond Clark

There is a great book on this subject: “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do it Better,” by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. I highly recommend it for everyone using email. Find in on Amazon.

Allison Primack

When asked “What kinds of emails do you ignore, and why? Do you ever feel like your emails are ignored?”, GovLoopers on Facebook said:

Vahagn Karmir Karapetyan As a jobless student trying to get his foot in the door, my emails get ignored by government officials all the time. Or, they get replied to SO late that their answer is no longer relevant.

Tom Pfeifer Texts, emails, tweets, wall comments and voicemails are all verbal. Only voicemails are oral, however.

Thomas W. Thornberry I’ve found a general cheapening of communication has been going on in both professional and private circles for the past 7-8 years. Social networking and the new use of portable devices have contributed to the problem. I’ve sworn that if I’m ever in a position of authority, I won’t let people languish without some acknowledgement that I’ve heard from them. Government and industry both preach the importance of communication and interpersonal skills…I agree with that assessment, and think our society needs to reflect it in how it does business day to day.

Rachel White

Email is subject to the same challenges as any communication effort. People are all different and require different approaches — some people respond well to email and some don’t. I work with a guy whose MO is to delete most email immediately and assume that “if it’s important, it will come back to me.” With him, I pick up the phone. 🙂 Other people I can trust as email-reliable and I don’t have to follow up.

Raymond Clark

Good grief, Rachel! How can someone be so myopic and egocentric as to believe it will “come back to him.” He won’t survive long me thinks.

Julie Chase

Alot of times I put what I want to say in the “subject”. It appears on the readers computer in the lower right corner of the screen when it arrives, they read it quick, and go on. Most of my work is customer service and customer appreciated not having to read a paragraph of what I am sending. The subject line fits the bill. Lucky to all who can IM. Where I am it’s 1999 and we’re going backwards by the day. I love email. I used to work for engineers. Total introverts. Email was a godsend to them. They could do whole projects via email or Share Point.

Jim Mack

Bottom Line At Top

Along the lines of what Julie does with the subject line, I follow the BLAT principle: Bottom Line At the Top.

Ask for what you want right away. If you require a response, start with “Response Required.”


Then you can lay out all the logic and background below. I try to format to make it scannable, like

  • bulleted lists
  • headers
  • numbered lists

Making it easy to read your email ups the chances of getting a response, although some folks may ignore you anyway, like Rachel’s coworker!

Dannielle Blumenthal

Don’t start the subject line with “Fw:”

Do start by categorizing – FYI, “Action Required”

Don’t carelessly cc the whole world

Do keep it short

Do include attachment if you have a lot to say

Do not send email invitations to meetings, use calendar

Do not send a zillion emails

Do not send irrelevant emails

Generally be mindful of others’ time.

Raymond Clark

Good thoughts Dannielle. Much of those kinds of tips are the book I recommended in an earlier post. You touched on one of my pet peeves. the “Fw” and its mate the “RE:”. Part of the issue for me is that when an email has a long trail and changes theme over time where the subject no longer reflects the topic, I change the subject line. There is no foul in doing so and it makes clear we are on a different topic. I like Jim’s comment to about “Response Required.” If you require some kind of action or response from the recepient, make that clear in the subject line. For me, the subject line is the most important part of the email. It determines whether a person believes they are obligated to open it or not. Be careful of overusing the “action” line for fear of being labled one who crys wolf with every email, though.

This is a great discussion by the way. So much of what we do is email. Keep the ideas flowing!

Campbell David

Dannielle’s suggestions are formatted to get attention. Each phrase has attention-getting “air” around it: that’s so restful to eyes that stare at a monitor all the time. Big hunks of text are exhausting.

I’ve been frustrated by ignored emails because what I send often contains instructions; I post the same info on our internal website in case one or the other is the preferred medium but both are ignored by this or that colleague. I don’t have the luxury of walking over to talk to someone; wish I did but we have many physical sites and I have to depend on electronic communication. Sometimes I send memos in interoffice envelopes – so 20th C. but hey, ANYTHING to get my message through.

“Action Required” is going to be my new button-pusher.

Raymond Clark

Oh, oh, oh…another pet peeve!

How do you get people to actually “read” the instructions of an action email? I am continually frustrated when I send and email with instructions that say “use the template provided” and then they don’t. Or, do not use acronyms, spell out Air Force, etc. Is it just a matter of laziness on their part or is there a secret to writing such instructions where people will follow?

Dannielle Blumenthal

(red, all caps)

Then link to instruction document

@Raymond I dislike email but understand people are used to it and we don’t yet have the mainstream technology to be working in shared workspace all the time. We will get there though.

Josh Nankivel

I’m going to have to write another post summarizing all the great ideas from my fellow Govlooper’s here in the comments!

Corey McCarren

I really like the last part of Thomas Thornberry’s Facebook comment that Allison posted. “Government and industry both preach the importance of communication and interpersonal skills…I agree with that assessment, and think our society needs to reflect it in how it does business day to day.” There’s definitely an unwillingness in some organizations to really be interpersonal, and it’s at a loss not just for business but I think for people’s happiness as well. I had a phone interview the other day and asked about organizational culture. The HR managers respond included, “we like to joke.” I’m glad to have scored a follow up interview with that organization.

Anyway I realize that got off topic. Right now, I don’t get so many emails that I really need to pick and choose (I get about 40 a day). But if I ever wind up getting like 400 emails a day, I could imagine that if it’s not important enough for a phone call, it may not be important enough for me to spend my time responding to you at the cost of my own productivity.

Jo Youngblood

The missing feedback loop is certainly a critical element in e-mail. I think also another critical piece to understand is why people might choose to ignore you. I did project administration for a while and my position required me to essentially spam the entire agency about things like Time & Effort reporting deadlines (OMB A-21 compliance, etc.). Then of course, I also volunteered to help run the annual charity fundraiser. I would send e-mails and if I didn’t feel like someone was being response I would follow-up with a nice phone call “hey, it’s Jo. I sent you an e-mail but wanted to follow up and see if you had any questions about what I am asking for or if it’s possible for you to get that information by xyz. Please give me a call if you have any questions.” It prompted people to 1) not do a general trash filter on my e-mails and 2) to actually go look at the last e-mail I sent them because it must be important if I’m bothering to also leave a voicemail.