ask a boss

‘I Hate Talking to My Co-workers in Person!’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I have a co-worker who very rarely responds to my emails. Maybe 25 percent of the emails I send her get any response or acknowledgement that she read them.

I work in manufacturing, as an engineer, and she runs inventory, so our paths don’t often cross but I still need her input on certain aspects of my job.
Every time we interact in person she has been very helpful, kind, polite, etc.
Normally it’s just to stock up on pens or something small. However, if I send her an email asking her to run a report for me, or to coordinate a time to walk through a process with me, I get total silence. Not even an email that says “Hi — super busy this week — can I get back to you next Tuesday?” I don’t even get responses to emails like: “Hi, I know you’re busy but I could really use help with X, I don’t know this process as well as you. Let me know if we can get together sometime this week to look it over.”

She works on the opposite side of the building from me, so I will admit that it’s partial laziness that prevents me from walking over to ask her questions, but I also feel that email is a better form of communication for what I need to work on with her — for example, because I might need to send attachments, coordinate a meeting time for when she’s not busy, or simply not interrupt her current task with my questions. I have no problems with other co-workers responding to my emails (they all do), so I don’t think my tone is overly demanding or rude, although maybe I’m wrong? 

Obviously my method of stubbornly emailing her and hoping for a response isn’t working. Should I just start walking over to her desk more often and hope she gets on board with communicating, even if it’s more time consuming for me? Should I possibly bring it up to her and ask if there is a better way to communicate? 

I am hesitant to bring it up with my boss because he will surely ask me why I haven’t called or walked over more, and I don’t have a great answer other than “her lack of response thus far indicated to me that she doesn’t want to work with me and walking over will probably be annoying her,” nor do I want to sound like a tattletale complaining about a co-worker. I’m fairly new (less than a year here) and young (under 30) so I’m trying hard to not step on toes but also I’m still adjusting to my increasing responsibilities, so I will admit I probably am more anxious about this than some, but I could really use help. 

Your boss almost definitely will ask why you haven’t tried other methods of communication, or at least tried to talk with your co-worker about how to communicate better.

To be clear, what your co-worker is doing isn’t okay. It’s not okay to routinely ignore questions and requests from colleagues.

But it’s also not ideal that you see the way you’re trying to communicate isn’t working, and that you’re just … doing more of the same. Most managers would rightly expect you to try to address the situation differently — and to try solve the problem yourself before bringing it to them.

That said, the way you’ve been handling this up until now is incredibly common, particularly among 20-somethings. I can’t tell you how often I hear people say something like, “I’ve tried to get ahold of this person four different times but she never gets back to me” — and then it comes out that all four of those attempts were by email and they never tried calling or stopping by the person’s office, even when either of those options would have been easy ways to connect.

The reason we don’t try other methods of communicating is pretty much always because, well, we don’t want to. Email is easy and it’s comfortable, and so many of us stick with that. And I get it: Email is magnificent, and I wish I could conduct my entire business life through it. But when you’re getting clear signs that email is not achieving what you want it to achieve — and you need things from a certain person to get your own work done — you have to try a different approach. (Though if someone works for you and ignores your emails, you can require that person to answer their email.)

You worry your co-worker’s unresponsiveness is a sign that she doesn’t want to deal with you at all … but really, when people ignore work emails, it’s generally because (a) they’re overwhelmed and dealing with higher priorities or (b) they suck at email. It would be really rare for someone to ignore reasonable emails from a colleague as a way of signaling “go away, pest.” The reality is that some people just aren’t on top of email, and may never be.

So, what should you do here?

First, start by asking your co-worker in person, point-blank, if there’s a better way to communicate with her. Say something like, “I don’t always hear back from you when I email you work questions. Is there a better way for me to send those requests? Do you prefer I call or handle it some other way?” (Again: Say this in person, not over email!) This will accomplish two things: Most obviously, it might reveal useful information. Maybe you’ll learn she’s inundated with emails every first week of the month, and if you need to reach her during that period you should call or DM her. At the same time, you’re politely calling her out for not answering you. You communicate that her lack of response is causing problems, and that if she doesn’t reply — if she doesn’t try to help you — she will likely have to face this mildly awkward conversation with you in the future, too. That alone is sometimes enough to nudge people into being more responsive.

Then of course, take her at her word. If she says you’ll have better luck if you call her, then you should start picking up the phone when you need to reach her. Which is annoying if you’re not a phone person, or if email would be more efficient — but getting an actual answer is better than continuing to use a previously unsuccessful method.

Even if she says email is fine and she’s just swamped but will do a better job of getting back to you from now on, you probably still need to start varying your methods of communicating with her. The next time you send an email and she ignores it for a few days, pick up the phone and call her, or stop by her office, or send an instant message — whatever non-email method people use in your office. You can’t prize one particular communication method over the results it gets, just because you prefer it — you’ve got to go with what works. (Meanwhile, you’re certainly entitled to be privately annoyed.)

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I Hate Talking to My Co-workers in Person!’