The out-of-office emails that don't go down well

There are some joys to being in the office in January, like less crammed trains and working with people who haven't yet been ground down by the year. But it's also a time when one reads a lot of out-of-office emails, so this is my guide to what (not) to do with them.

1. Don't forget to turn it on

It would be nice to know sooner rather than later that you are off sunning yourself and on a digital detox as we madly try to get some answers via email. 

What does your out-of-office message say about you?
What does your out-of-office message say about you?  Photo: iStock

2. Disclose your trashing tactics (politely)

A few people I know have used out-of-office messages to declare they will be deleting any emails that arrive while they are away on leave. Yes it is blunt, but they've avoided wading through thousands of emails, and the upside for the rest of us is we knew when to try again.

The Australian Financial Review's Life and Leisure editor Katarina Kroslakova took this approach last time she was on leave. 
"When I got back to work, I went through the trash bin just to double check I didn't miss anything hugely important, and out of the thousands of emails that I received, I would've kept six. The world still turned, the newspaper still got published, no-one had an existential crisis because I didn't answer their email," she says.

Be honest if you are planning on mass email deletions after the holidays.
Be honest if you are planning on mass email deletions after the holidays. 

3. Never use an emoji

According to Laurie Davis, chief executive of eFlirt, an online dating consultancy, when men use emoji while conversing online with prospective dates, their response rates drop 66 per cent (weirdly it goes up if you're female). Whatever your gender, don't put emoji in work emails, no matter how happy you are to be out of the office. It makes you seem a lot more Kardashian than Kasparov.

4. Don't include a moralising quote

Harvard Business Review article published this month says that including a "virtuous" quote in your email signature is a simple way to make people behave more ethically at work.

It covered a study by University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School which found that in a simulated office game where people had "Success without honour is worse than fraud" inserted into their email signatures, they were less likely to send out deceptive emails to "colleagues", even though they were financially rewarded for getting these colleagues to pass on misinformation.

The study also found that people with a virtuous quote in their email signature were less likely to be asked to do something unethical by colleagues. 

Add an emoji to a work email and people will automatically detract some IQ points off you.
Add an emoji to a work email and people will automatically detract some IQ points off you.  Photo: Supplied

I was thinking that maybe people with virtuous email signatures weren't being asked to do dodgy things simply because their colleagues and clients had cut off all contact with them. Then I got to the part where the academic who carried out the research mentioned that his findings didn't hold up everywhere. 

"In fact, we're studying how people react to moral symbols in Australia. Our preliminary study showed that people there were skeptical of moral displays. They seemed to think the bloke with the quote was being 'holier than thou' and probably had something to hide," said assistant professor Sreedhari Desai. His cultural sensitivity is to be applauded. 

Inserting a virtuous quote into your email signature might work in the US, but Australians are likely to view you with ...
Inserting a virtuous quote into your email signature might work in the US, but Australians are likely to view you with suspicion. Photo: Vincent Besnault

5. Entertain us

According to Desai, Australians are more fond of, and likely to spare, someone with fun-loving and silly quotes over an email moraliser. 

Blogger and public relations advisor Hiten Shah has this quote in his email signature: "Words I live by: 'You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.' Zig Ziglar". It's appealing because it isn't too virtuous but suggests he's going to try to be useful. 

Then there are also some amusingly malicious out-of-office messages, spotted on a marketing blog on hubspot, such as "Hi. I'm thinking about what you've just sent me. Please wait by your PC for my response." 

6. Shorter can be sweeter

Emailed automated replies seem to be getting longer in recent months. Many people include not only who to contact in their absence and when they will be back, but add in their emailed signature every possible social media/phone/email address that they have plus a mention of whatever award they have won. The folks at media agency Atomic 212° take the award for listing a whopping 13 other awards in their email signatures. 

But today I received this polite out-of-office message:  "I am out of the office for many, many moons. I wish you luck in your search for answers".  

When will he be back? Who should I contact in his absence? I've no idea, but it's still my favourite automatic reply this summer.

Rachel Nickless writes on leadership for The Australian Financial Review. Read more of her stories here.

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