Stop the madness! Reducing work emails I don't need.
December 29, 2014 12:26 PM   Subscribe

I work for a local government. I am in the equivalent of a general counsel position in the private sector. I am receiving around 200 emails every day. I estimate I actually should receive about 50 of these. I don't mind getting emails I need, but I want to stop being CC'ed unnecessarily and asked mundane questions. How do I cut down on the flow of unnecessary email without becoming the dragon lady from legal?

We have about 300 employees. One department in particular sends me about 20 emails a day. I have politely told them I don't need to be cc'ed or included on many of these strings, but they state "Oh, we just want to keep you in the loop." I don't want to be in their loop! I've already spoken with their department head about this, and am not sure what to do next.

I have another group of employees that sends me questions that should go a direct manager. Envision a secretary going over his middle management boss and the department head straight to me to ask "Can I do X?" I've asked them to ask their manager and gotten the response "She is busy, so I asked you." Half the time I can't answer the question because I don't know how to fix a snowplow.

The snotty person insides me wants to respond "This isn't relevant, please stop sending me these messages" or "Go ask your manager" but there has to be a nicer way, right? I want to cut down on the noise so I have time to do my job and important emails from our elected officials aren't getting lost in this mess. Help me, internets!
posted by notjustthefish to Work & Money (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Start by replying more slowly -- like once a day, or maybe even once a week on the extraneous emails -- so that they stop thinking of you as the place to get a quick answer.

You should also be able to set up a filter that dumps the nonimportant stuff into a "Read Later" folder and only the emails from the people you actually need to read emails from (e.g., the electd officials) are in your inbox. Then once a week maybe skim through that Read Later folder to see if there's anything you actually need to respond to.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:32 PM on December 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

I tend to handle this sort of thing with lots of client-level rules. If sender isMember <spammydept> and subject contains FW:, FYI, --> reply with template, delete.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:32 PM on December 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

I get a lot of this as the senior developer on my project. I use filters to shunt aside everything not directly relevant to my job (programming) so that I don't get sidetracked by bureaucratic bullshit.
posted by starbreaker at 12:32 PM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's kind of uncomfortable but basically you have to stop paying off. You're reinforcing their bizarre belief that you're not busy because you stay on top of email and respond easily when you know a one-sentence answer. You'll never get rid of them because hitting you up works.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:46 PM on December 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: There are options for you once the email has already been sent. Those are great for the time being.

For the mundane questions, one warning to the offender, then delete without response. Yes, you still have to read it. Sorry.

For the rest, the root of the problem is that you're the lawyer, and we live in a society where covering one's ass is believed to be very important.

"I CC'd legal and they didn't seem to have a problem with it!"

The emails are coming a helpful place -- they want to make sure that you can do your job effectively. If you ask 1,000 general counsels if they'd rather get emails they don't need or not be included on emails they really ought to see, every single one will take the former, every single time. This is primarily because the cost of getting an email you don't need is low, but the cost of missing one you do need is potentially very, very high.

The only way to fix this is to actually teach them what you need to know about. This requires you actually know what that is and feel comfortable describing it in detail and with clarity.

Rather than treating this as a failure on the part of your co-workers, you should see it as an opportunity for you to be more explicit and define your own role better. Once that's all done, you'll still have some assholes who ignore the documents/training and continue to email you. You can move those complaints up the chain (or invoke the technical solutions others have given).
posted by toomuchpete at 12:52 PM on December 29, 2014 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Oh I feel your pain. I'm at 80-odd, about five of which are actionable/important. Two hundred would tip me over the edge! Particularly in such a small organization.

My strategy has been a combination of (in Outlook) rules, categorization, flagging/tasks, aggressive archiving and template replies to ridiculous requests, combined with education wherever I can get it in.

Specifically, I have rules that dump company-wide newsletters into a 'later' folder. And by later, I mean 'never'.

I also have rules that auto categorise emails from key people in our senior management team.

I flag anything actionable, including with a date reminder if there's a deadline associated with the email, and drag to create tasks.

So that takes care of the 5/80 that I need to read/action.

The other 75? I skim once a day to make sure I'm not missing an action. Any idiot request I reply to with a short template. I keep the templates in my signatures file for ease of access. They're just short and to the point. Eg 'Dear Name, thanks for your request for assistance re snowplow repair. In the first instance, snowplow repair requests need to be routed through Snowplow Manager, kind regards, You'. And then they go straight to archive, out of my inbox. I have unlimited archive space so maybe not an option for everyone? I use a flat structure and rely on Outlook search to find everything.

After THAT I deal with the inevitable 'O but Snowplow Manager was busy / Father Xmas said I should ask YOU / But Head Elf ALWAYS did this for me before / other pushback' by firmly but kindly repeating that they need to do (thing) where (thing) = not ask me.

Finally, I accept this is never going to end.

Other things I've seen people do: my boss (who is The Boss, GM level) doesn't open his email til 9pm. He batch reads/replies to everything in about an hour. This avoids getting caught in endless email conversations that add to the volume and make it even harder to manage.

I've also seen people add notes to their signatures along the lines of 'In line with best practice, I only check my email once a day at 3pm' or similar. There are still 200 emails. But you only have to deal with them between 3-4 pm. Not as a steady drip-feed of rage-inducing idiocy through the day.

And turn off notifications so you are in control of your email not vice versa. My god that alone has made my day so much less stressful.

Good luck!
posted by t0astie at 1:07 PM on December 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Agree with hal c on. Set a rule up whenever you are CC: on an email explaining that you are not able to respond to each and every email due to volume, and that this email will be skipping your inbox. If it requires immediate attention, please just send TO: you, and indicate the action needed and by what date.

I've debated doing this myself.
posted by Draccy at 1:07 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can put an out-of-office alert on your email to the effect of, "I am currently unable to respond to email. I will reply to your email as I am able." You'll still get the emails, but the senders will know that you're not responding. You can then ignore forever, if it does not pertain to you.

If you are cc'd on something and you no longer want to be in the loop, send a canned email that says, "This is not pertinent to the legal department, please remove my name from any further communications." Repeat as necessary.

You contradict yourself by responding with information. If you stop giving out information, they will stop asking for it.

I'm still petitioning to put a stop the the "Thank You" email.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:08 PM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are these emails just FYI, or do you need to respond?

If they're mostly FYI that can be read at your leisure or don't need an immediate response, then this is a technology problem, not a people problem. The solution is email filters. You need to be aggressive with the filters. These will sort your emails before you even see them, and are a lifesaver for those of us who deal with hundreds of emails a day. This is easily done with Outlook or Gmail, not sure about the others.

For example - anything where you're not on the to: line, but included as a cc - they go into one folder and never hit your inbox. If you want to break this up by sender, thats fine. Emails from people A,B,C go into one folder, the rest into another.

If you get a lot of emails to distribution lists that you're on, but you're not specifically in the to: or cc: lines, then these again get another folder. Break it up into multiple folders if necessary based on specific distro lists.

And finally, reserve a few minutes a day/week/month (whatever cadence is required) to just quickly go through each of the folders, deleting quickly and swiftly. Anything that needs to be followed up on can be moved (manually) into a separate "todo" folder, or back into the main inbox, whatever works for you.
posted by cgg at 1:12 PM on December 29, 2014

Oh yes! hal_c_on has it. You need a company email protocol. Developed if not by you then certainly with your interests (and probably the interests of other senior staff) in mind. Distribute this Officially. Quote liberally in auto responses.
posted by t0astie at 1:14 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just don't beat around the bush...

Reply All:
I appreciate that you are trying to keep me in the loop, but the number of emails I get from your department far exceeds my ability to read them. I'm happy to help if there are specific issues, and give me a call any time as well. Otherwise let's catch up at the monthly meeting.

To: Marissa's boss
Cc: Marissa
Forward: question
Hi Sue, Marissa has a question I think you'd be better at answering.

(The inappropriate queries should stop right quick.)
posted by zennie at 1:43 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

(Although, having been there, I'd probably just drag all the emails from the Too Much Email Dept into an email folder and be done.)
posted by zennie at 1:50 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whatever mail client you use, should have a way to shove messages from certain people where you are only CC'd into a folder.
posted by nickggully at 2:23 PM on December 29, 2014

Best answer: Please listen to toomuchpete. Consider these employees' perspectives. They work in a political environment where lawsuits, investigations, bus-throwing-under, etc. happen. Maybe they're trying to keep you informed, cover their asses, or whatever. Your inbox is not, and should not be, their concern. If you have too much to deal with, you should get additional help. Be thankful your fellow employees are concerned about seeking legal advice.

To cut down, give managers specific guidelines on when they need to include you or not (that allows them to cover their asses). For random "how do I fix a snowplow" emails have a prewritten reply: "This outside the purview of the office. Please redirect your question to a supervisor/your department."

If it comes to covering their ass versus annoying you, most people will try to cover their ass.

Can you set a filter that puts your elected officials in a special folder to ensure they're easily identifiable?
posted by JackBurden at 3:08 PM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Boilerplate response to people who ask you to do things that are not part of your official job, "I'll be happy to help you,once you convince my boss it's a priority for me".
posted by Confess, Fletch at 5:26 PM on December 29, 2014

I think the filter + autoreply option is a good one. Maybe the autoreply option can also say that you'll only respond to inquiries referred to you by supervisors?
posted by mchorn at 5:51 PM on December 29, 2014

I've seen some legal departments who will only answer requests for actual legal advice that are made on a "Request for Legal Advice" form. This form can be typed and emailed (or you can make people print it out and put it in your in-tray along with all other relevant documents but this may be going too far, depending on the culture there). Then when people email random questions a canned response to say that if it's a legal query, please use the form and if they're not after legal advice then please direct the query to a more appropriate person.

I've also seen people use the cc rule/auto-reply like what Draccy suggests. In case it needs saying, I suggest you only use autoreplies for internal emails.

Finally - can you schedule regular meetings with the managers so they can catch you up on things that they feel you should know about? As others have mentioned above, many legal departments have the opposite problem of not being kept in the loop, until there's a crisis. So I'd be wary of shutting down communication too much, just maybe shift the method from email to in person.
posted by pianissimo at 6:35 PM on December 29, 2014

Best answer: I'd be worried about the issue mentioned above "I CC'd legal, they didn't have a problem" -- basically no response being treated as legal advice. How I'd do it is a combo approach:

1. Create a formal Request for Legal Advice template - send a memo to explain: (a) legal should only be involved when an actual request for legal advice is submitted; (b) explain that emails, even if sent to general counsel, may not be protected by privilege; and (c) explain the municipality's document retention policy (i.e. y'all have to keep these emails for X years, and they're subject to discovery in the event of a lawsuit). If you can do this as a meeting (or series of meetings) that's even better. I'm a non-practicing attorney in the private sector, the employees at my company are basically told by general counsel to never put anything in writing ever; pretty much don't use email ever for anything.
2. Set up an auto reply basically saying "Thank you for your email. Due to the volume of emails received, I cannot reply to each message. Please use the Request for Legal Advice form for all legal inquiries. For prompt assistance, please call me [or my assistant] at ext. ####."
3. After about a month or so, the volume should die down a lot. But you'll still have some stragglers. Call a meeting with straggler and their boss to discuss the liability issues that arise when counsel is improperly included in an email chain.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:01 PM on December 29, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all for the responses! I am certainly glad they are keeping me in the loop, but a blind CC with no response from me definitely doesn't mean everything is on the up and up, especially when they are forwarding a 30+ email string.

We have a request for legal services template and I think I do need to be more diligent about enforcing the use of it. I'm newly promoted into this position and my old job doesn't exist, so I'm pretty much a one lady plus one awesome paralegal shop. I am also by nature a fixer, which is probably the worst personality for a lawyer to have because I want to solve ALL THE PROBLEMS all the time and that's simply not possible.
posted by notjustthefish at 7:24 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

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