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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

over-sharing in your out-of-office messages

A reader writes:

I work in R&D for the computer industry, where technical staff have few meetings with customers and generally are given a fairly flexible schedule. It's not uncommon for people to send to a broad team mailing list (~20-50 people) messages like:

"I'll be in around 10:30. The contractors are just starting to pour the new foundation this morning." 

"Leaving early at 4. I need to take my kid to the dentist."

Now first, I really don't think the details of why you're going to be away from the office are important. We're all adults here. We trust you to make good decisions on what constitutes a good reason to be gone. Besides, work hours are flex. If you take off a couple hours in the morning or evening one day, maybe you do some more work later that day, or sometime in the next week.

But what I take the biggest exception to is the lack of discretion when deciding on what to send in a mass email to the team. Sure, you should let your direct manager know, and any core people that you work with very closely who might be looking for you. But to send it to the entire team seems overkill. Seriously, what are the odds that someone other than your manager or your closest co-workers will need you while you're out? Especially in the era of smartphones.

Back when I managed people, I used to tell my employees to just block the time off on their calendar and make sure that at least I had their cell number. Seriously, you don't see people sending messages like "I'm going to be in a 2 hour strategy meeting this morning, but I'll be out by 10:30 if anyone needs me." If the time you're out of the office is about as long as a meeting you might be in while at work, I don't think you really need to tell anyone your plans.

Ok, so it's not really a question. More of a recurring situation that I've seen at every company I work at. What are your thoughts on this situation?

Before anyone complains that this is too nitpicky, let me say: Nitpicky stuff can be fascinating, and I think this is a perfect example of it. No, you don't want your company to issue policies and directives about things at this micro of a level, but it's interesting to dissect nonetheless, especially when you enjoy over-thinking things (as many of us do).

I agree that the reasons you're going to be away aren't relevant. What's relevant is simply that you will be away. And yes, sometimes even that is overkill. As you point out, at least in cultures like yours, a good rule of thumb for people who aren't regularly looking for you or aren't your boss is, "If the time you're out of the office is about as long as a meeting you might be in while at work, you don't really need to tell anyone your plans."

Sometimes the over-sharing of plans can even come across as suspect -- similar to how when someone's calling in sick with genuine illness, they usually just say, "I'm going to be out sick," but fakers will generally give you a long list of overly specific symptoms, like they feel they have to convince you.

On the other hand, sometimes it's interesting to hear that your colleague is remodeling his kitchen or taking his kid to her first day of school.

But it can become too much. I used to work with a guy who used to all-staff his every move: "I'm running some errands after lunch and will probably be back by 2:30 but it might be 3:00."  "I'm leaving 15 minutes early today, so see Dan with any end-of-the-day questions." "I'm going to be on a conference call about our new report all morning." It got to the point where I started to expect to receive, "I'm headed to the bathroom. Probably back in 5 minutes, but it might be 10."

And then there are the self-aggrandizers. Another guy I used to work with was notorious for messages like this: "I'll be late today because I pulled an all-nighter getting our new ad ready."  He claimed to have "pulled" so many "all-nighters" that people generally assumed he was either (a) lying in a bizarre attempt to inflate his image or (b) really, really inefficient. 

Overall, though, I'd argue that this kind of thing adds entertainment to the day. You're best off simply appreciating its amusement value and not getting too annoyed by it.

(By the way, for people who enjoy analyzing this sort of minutiae, the Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece about overly-personal auto-replies.)


Lisa said...

Interesting! My office recently moved to Outlook 2007 and one of the things I thought was good is the option to have different out-of-office replies for internal and external emails. Mine is the same for both, and it specifies whether I'm on annual leave (no access to email) or on client site (limited access to email), and when until, so people know when to expect a reply, but I probably wouldn't give more detail than that, and I generally only put it on when I'll be out for half a working day or more.

StaffingStarr said...

I have to admit, I start sweating whenever I have to write the "out-of-office" messages. We're a small start up, with a team of 2, so if I have my out-of-office on, and my outside sales person is "out", it gives the impression that "we're a small operation AND/OR that the office is closed". I don't want my managers or clients to get the wrong impression... I just feel guilty and anxious... Any suggestions?

Help Me Get "Out-of-Office" More Often

Anonymous said...

How about when you send your supervisor the reason you'll be out, but then instead of letting the rest of the staff know that so-and-so will be out today, your message intended for the boss is just forwarded on to the team?

stebu said...

One counter-argument for why it is important: It is important for your co-workers to know how reachable you are. There is a big difference between "I am watching a foundation being poured" and "I am at a funeral"

That said, the way I handle it is if I am easily contactable, I include my cell number in the out of office email. If I'm not, I'll include who they should talk to instead of me.

Cassie said...

I don't use out-of-office messages much at all - in the past, I've always had access to email even when I am out of the office for a few days, so I didn't bother with the auto-responses.

I would let the people I assist know that I would be out for x number of days but if they needed anything, to email me.

I'm going on a longer vacation and might not be able to access email - it's going to be interesting. I told my bosses and the people I assist that I will be out. The problem is that there isn't a specific person who will or can fill in for me. So I'm creating a "who to contact" list so they can at least find someone who should be able to help them. But for outside clients, I don't know what I'm going to do - maybe if they end up emailing my bosses, my bosses can figure out which staffer can help (though I wonder about that too).

Maybe I'm a more "private" person but I wouldn't put details in my out-of-office messages. If I'm out, I'm out - why I am (vacation, training, meeting, etc) doesn't really matter. The only difference was when I got a root canal and was out for 3 days - I asked people to email me because I didn't want to talk on the phone. I know a couple of other staffers who write when they have to go to the acupuncturist, that they have to leave early to get to a class because they didn't drive today, etc. Too much info!

carl said...


I agree, too a point. It is important for people to know how reachable you are, but I just say reachable/not reachable. What I've learned is that some people don't have the same notion of boundaries as I do. I have had managers that wouldn't hesitate to call at a funeral. (Yes, really) By only specifying reachable or not, you can set your own boundaries.

My cell number is in the company directory, so everyone internal has access to it. But, it's amazing how every vacation I take is to an area of "borderline cell coverage". Some people get the hint. Some don't, but the excuse for not picking up their call is built right in.

screaminscott said...

I think this happens at companies where there isn't a lot of communication between management and employees. It can also happen where roles, responsibilities and expectations aren't clear. People tell everyone where they are because the org chart has dotted lines everywhere. And they overly explain their absence because, while mangement may say your hours are flexible, your idea of flexible hours and management ideas maybe different. And you might not find out until your yearly performance review rolls around.

Amy said...

At least they're letting you know they're out! I have district and regional managers who don't even turn on their "out of office" when they're on a week's vacation! No info about who is covering their area or anything. I'd rather err on the side of overcommunication than none.

PS The only time I included personal info in my auto message was when I was out to get married and go on my honeymoon - I was too excited to leave it out! :-)

Kristin said...

My biggest pet peeves are: 1.) people who don't remove the auto-reply when they return from their leave and 2.) people who don't put their listserv subscriptions on vacation hold so the whole listserv constantly gets hit with the auto-reply (day after day after day).

Jamie said...

The over share is a huge pet peeve of mine - at best it's irrelevant and at worst unprofessional.

Best solution if you have people who are putting out unprofessional OOO replies is to have IT (or other management) issue a generic statement that everyone uses, tailored per department.

It's not necessary for those who have smart phone access to email - I personally never use it and if I'm away will check email and forward to the appropriate person covering for me if it's necessary.

I do think it's needed to provide an alternate contact if you won't have access to email. Dates you'll be out and the contact information for the person covering you is all they need.

Justin said...

I work on a team that has very flexible hours and allows telecommuting. One woman is a few months pregnant and whenever she leaves early or telecommutes due to a daytime prenatal doctors appointment (or for any non-medical reasons), we all get an email explaining what specifically why she will be unavailable. I think people do this to cover their ass or justify their use of the flexible privileges, and in the case of anything medical related, to garner a little attention and sympathy.

Anonymous said...

Kristin, my biggest pet peeve is people who don't update their out of office phone message.

I don't care that someone took 2 days off in April when I'm calling them in September. At the same time, that lack of attention to detail, really doesn't inspire confidence. kwim?

KellyK said...

I would much rather people use an out-of-office reply than e-mail fifty people the details of their schedule. If I haven't tried to get a hold of you yet, I really don't need to know where you are or what you're doing.

If I *am* someone you need to let know (like, we work on the same project), I don't much care whether you tell me why or not. If it's a major event, like getting married, it's nice to know so I can congratulate you. But whether you're going to the dentist or taking half a vacation day to shoe-shop is really none of my business. But, as long as it's nothing gross or overly personal, it doesn't bother me if you share.

I also think that 24 hours is reasonable for a reply to e-mail. So, unless you're going to be out for a whole day, neither an out-of-office message or a team/company-wide e-mail is necessary--as long as a supervisor and/or admin knows when you'll be back, and as long as anyone who would need to contact you in an actual emergency has your contact info.

KellyK said...

I think people do this to cover their ass or justify their use of the flexible privileges, and in the case of anything medical related, to garner a little attention and sympathy.

Justin, I think you have a good point. A lot of the time it's people trying to justify that they have a good reason to be gone, and avoid being perceived as a slacker.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to let people know relevant details: when you'll be out, how to reach you in case of an emergency, who to contact if they can't reach you. If you're going to be limited on access or traveling internationally, I think you should let people know that too. Beyond that, anything else is an overshare.

If you work from home or take a day off occasionally, I don't think it's necessary to put up out of office. But if you are a telecommute employee, you should definitely put up out of office anytime you are fully out - as people can't walk by your desk and see if you are there or not.

Jamie said...

Justin and Kelly made the great point about the motive being to justifications.

What the slackers don't know (as they are by nature blissfully ignorant and unaware) is that this backfires.

If you are abusing out of office flex time people know that - and all the sob stories and constant emergencies just make it worse.

On the other hand if you have a good work reputation where you don't breed resentment amongst your co-workers then no one will think twice about whether or not you're entitled to be out of the office.

It's kind of like the boy who cried wolf. If you have an crisis every other Tuesday and your boss needs a pivot table to keep track of all your "medical issues" and family emergencies you risk not being believed when life really poops the bed.

KellyK said...

I like Jamie's point that continually trying to justify your time out of the office can backfire. Heck, it backfires even if every "sob story" is the gospel truth, just because people are cynical. (I'll admit that when I hear that so-and-so's computer died for the umpteenth time, I roll my eyes and think, "Sure...sure it did.")

So, that may be another reason to not give out information beyond times, availability, and who else to contact, and save any details for people who actually need to know (like "yep, it's another migraine" to the person who approves your sick leave).

People can't question the validity of your story if there's no story to question.

And, like Jamie said, whether you're a slacker or a hard worker will make itself known anyway.

Ask a Manager said...

I agree, and think it goes back to what I was saying about how people who fake sick always give too many details. It makes you wonder, "why are you trying to convince me?" Just say you're taking a sick day and be done with it.

I used to have a coworker who had overly detailed explanations every time he was going to be out (a detailed explanation of his kid's doctor's appointment, for instance, or once -- seriously -- a reference to some bowel issues), and after a while it was hard not to hear it as lying... because the subtext was so very much "I'm trying to convince you this is legitimate."

Jamie said...

A conversation about bowel issues? Whatever they were paying you - it wasn't nearly enough.

Why can't people just say they aren't feeling well then just stop talking.

Jamie said...

For those of you dealing with the flip side of this problem (someone at work who just REALLY needs to know if you vary your schedule by a few minutes...there is a fun and snarky solution if you have an IPhone.

There's an app called OnMyWay and it will send an automated email if you're running late and will even use the GPS to give an ETA.

I would not recommend doing this to make a point to your boss - but it's an effective silencer for the receptionist who get's up in arms about not knowing where everyone is at all times.

Erin said...

About the detailed descriptions of why you are sick:

I do this, even though I really am sick.

I never feel like I deserve to take a sick day, even when I'm feeling really awful. I don't know why, but it makes me feel really guilty, like I should just tough it out. And I think that other people feel that way, too, so I tend to explain when I call in.

Anonymous said...

I guess I disagree with pretty much everybody. If you are at home waiting for a repairman, I will feel better about calling you than if you are at home with a sick child. I prefer some detail more than "I am taking 4 hours personal time". I don't need a play-by-play, just a clue about your availability.

Honestly, the non-info just makes me think of my ex, who every time his aerospace company had layoffs, he and all his rocket scientist buddies would send a generic "I'm out" message and disappear to the bar, just to make it harder on Personnel to get rid of 'em.

KellyK said...

@Erin, I know the feeling. I feel guilty for taking off unless I'm all but dying of the plague.

@Anonymous at 3:53 PM, I think you can make your availability known easily just by including a line like "Feel free to call me at XXX-XXX-XXXX if you need anything." versus "Please feel free to e-mail or leave me a voicemail, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. For immediate needs, contact..."

Since we're talking about environments where people are either using vacation time or making up the hours later in the day/week, I think it's up to the person taking off to decide how available they want to be. A lot of people would really resent having to use half a personal day and then spending a big chunk of it on the phone with coworkers.

indefinitelee said...

true, over sharing can tend to backfire but rank and file employees need some way to appear to be pulling their own weight to those who are not intimately involved in their work and/or schedules.

what i mean is, if the R&D team works in the same room as the sales team and the maintenance crew and the accounting department mingle about the office.

When some people are not present every day or have unconventional hours, even if they are 100% completely justified in having that schedule, it can breed contempt in employees from other departments to whom it seems like "Carl" comes and goes whenever he wants.

KellyK said...

@indefinitelee, that's a valid concern, but I think it's better handled by departments being open about their scheduling requirements rather than individuals with flexible scheduling having to justify their every move to all and sundry. If, say, R&D has flexible scheduling and telecommuting, then the other departments should be aware that R&D folks may come and go at odd hours. (And, of course, there should be clear ways for folks in one department to get what they need from another during normal business hours.)

I think that any time anybody has more flexibility than someone else, there will be resentment, no matter how much they justify where they are and what they're doing. And the more you justify and over-explain, the more it appears suspicious and can cross into TMI.

I also wonder if sharing and justifying might not breed *more* resentment. That is, I can picture someone with a strict schedule getting the "I'm working from home today while the contractors are pouring concrete," e-mail and thinking "Must be nice for you...I have to take vacation time for that sort of thing."

Anonymous said...

Seriously. Is this non issue being discussed out of boredom?

Anonymous said...

I've always been puzzled over the need to include details other than "I'm 'unavailable/off-site' on 'date/time' with limited/no access to voicemail/e-mail. If you require immediate assistance please contact 'your back up person/assistant'. Otherwise I will respond as soon as possible."

As a customer/manager/employee the reason for your absence should be irrelevant to me. I've contacted you because I have a need or a problem. If you direct me to someone else who can meet that need, answer that question or solve that problem; I should be satisfied. If you don't have a back up or the company is going to collapse because you took two hours to watch your daughter play soccer, you REALLY need to work on a succession plan. What happens if you quit/get abducted by aliens/get squashed by a cement mixer?

Blackberries/i-Phones/Droids are convenient, but they really have created boundary issues for too many people. I understand Mad Men is a pretty accurate picture of its time period. How in the world did they ever get anything accomplished then?

Anonymous said...

I once was in a firm where OOO messages did not get forwarded outside the firm. Some thought it was a security issue - do you want the world to know person X is in Singapore on a business trip?

People need to have a sense of what is appropriate to share. A flexible company policy can change if too much information paints a picture of flexibility generating abuse.