If you’re heading out for some vacation this summer, crafting a perfect out-of-office email probably isn’t something you’re terribly stressed out by. It’s a simple message — how tricky could it be?
Well, to that I say, have you ever paid attention to other people’s out-of-office messages? There are some weird ones out there. Some out-of-office messages give way too much information (we don’t need to know that you’re out for a day of medical testing or that you’re watching a new concrete foundation being poured for your driveway). Other people’s messages are confusingly complicated (listing a dozen people to contact for various things in the person’s absence), and still others exude such obvious glee about getting away from work that recipients have to wonder if the sender will ever return.
Amusing as these can be to read, I’d recommend keeping things fairly simple and straightforward for your own auto-reply. Here’s how to do it — and how not do it.
1. Cover the basics.
Your message should explain that you’re out, when you’ll be back, and how reachable you are (if at all). In many cases, something like this is all you need:
I’m out of the office until July 5. I won’t be checking email during that time, but will get back to you as soon as I can after I return.
Note, by the way, that this message doesn’t say you’ll respond on the day you return. You’re likely to have a lot of work to catch up on when you return, so give yourself a buffer.
2. You don’t have to share why you’re away — but if you do, avoid TMI.
You don’t need to specify whether you’re on vacation or out sick, although if you want to, that’s fine to share! So are some more personal announcements; go ahead and share that you’re taking time off to get married or to attend a family reunion if you’d like! But people don’t need (or usually want) the more mundane details of life, like that you’re dealing with a flooded laundry room or taking a child to the dentist, or overly personal information, like that you’re out sick with an allergic reaction or finalizing your divorce papers.
3. If you’re sort-of-but-not-very reachable, be clear about that.
If you’re traveling for business, it might be fine for people to try to reach you (as opposed to if you’re sick or vacationing, when you’d probably prefer to be left alone). Still, though, you might want to ensure that people know you’ll be harder to reach and that your responses will be slower. A message like this fits that situation:
I’m currently attending the Tofu Marketers’ Annual Conference and will be out of the office until July 5. I’ll be checking email sporadically while I’m away, but will be slower to respond than usual.
If you’re willing to field cell-phone calls while you’re away, you could add:
If you need to reach me quickly, please call my cell at (phone number).
3. Keep things simple.
If you have a job where it makes sense to list alternate contacts for while you’re away, do that … but don’t get so detailed that you’re recreating your company’s email directory in your out-of-office message. For most people, limiting it to two or three “if you need X, please contact Y” should be enough.
And if you have a job where it’s not, you might be better off designating one main contact, who can act as traffic cop in your absence and figure out where to send each person (just make sure to clear it with them first!). For example:
If you need to reach someone in my absence, please contact my colleague, Jane Smartbrain, at (email and phone number).
4. Humor is iffy.
I once received an out-of-office message from someone who had written that she’d decided to sip margaritas on the beach in order to avoid having a nervous breakdown. It was … probably intended to be funny? I’m pro-margarita, but it was a little awkward to receive from someone I didn’t know well, and then have to wonder what was going on with her job and her company. On the other hand, it might have landed perfectly with people who knew her. But you never know who might email you while you’re away, so proceed cautiously if you’re using humor.
5. Remember to turn off your message when you’re back.
If people receive an auto-reply on July 8 that says you’ll be back on July 5, you’re going to look disorganized (or they’re going to worry that you never returned and something terrible has happened). If your email program doesn’t let you set an expiration date when you first set up the message, then leave yourself a note to do it once you’re back.
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 email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.