16 Aug 2022

Out-of-Office Etiquette

We’re in peak holiday season and our etiquette experts have turned their attention to the wonderful world of out-of-office emails.

Who would have thought that these innocuous email footer messages could be so controversial? Yet there are many pitfalls that really should be avoided:

• Oversharing

Do you really need to share the details of your upcoming absence with your entire email circulation list? Do suppliers, potential clients, managers, or new contacts really need to know about the specifics of your holiday plans, your upcoming operation, your kids’ holiday schedule, your sabbatical aspirations etc.?

• Virtue Signalling

Few messages are more irritating than smug statements about emotional priorities. Even a simple statement like “I’m off work and am planning to spend some quality time with my family” seems designed to make the rest of us feel like workaholic wage slaves who are neglecting our nearest and dearest.

• Boasting

Using an out of office message to brag about your yacht, your second home in France/Italy/Spain, or your expensive hobbies is just tone deaf. Rubbing the noses of your colleagues or employees in your good fortune is not an effective way of fostering team spirit.

• Under-communicating

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a message that simply states “I am not here”, with no details of return date or alternative emails to try, is worse than useless. It states the obvious, and provides absolutely no solution, so is guaranteed to irritate the recipient.

• Over-protesting

Using ‘out of office’ replies as a way of signalling how frantically busy you are (rather than to alert recipients to your absence) is not very professional. A message like “Due to the large volume of email messages I receive, I cannot reply to them all. If I have not responded within three business days, please try again” signals incompetence and grandiosity rather than industriousness.

• Self-importance

Using an out of office message on normal work days to advertise your inaccessibility is completely redundant. A message like “I am in client meetings between 10am and 4pm and will only be checking my emails after 4pm” is not intended to assist potential correspondents (who will surely be able to wait a few hours), but to signal to the world that you are an important, much sought-after person, who is in wall-to-wall meetings with clients.

• Overusing

Some people think nothing of using an out of office message whenever they leave their desk – whether they are at work-related meetings or on a lunch break. These redundant messages are simply ways of advertising indispensability, implying that – even when the guilty party has just popped out for a quick cup of coffee – there will be panic and consternation because they are not immediately available.

So how do you leave a helpful message that avoids all the above pitfalls? These are our recommendations:

Out of Office: Top Tips

• Remember to use an out of office message when you’re going to be absent for a day or more. It will ensure that people do not feel frustrated by your silence, or fear that you are ghosting them.

• Be polite. Don’t just launch in with “I’m on annual leave”. Preface your message with a greeting, such as “Thank you for your email”.

• Be concise. You really don’t need to add any elaboration to your simple message: “I am on annual leave until ….” Or “I am away from the office until…”

• It is important to give a specific return date – many recipients will be happy to wait until you return rather than pursuing an alternative route.

• If it is appropriate, direct your email correspondents to a colleague who can help, or alternatively give them details of a general enquiries number or help desk. Ensure that all the contact details are correct, and full names of members of staff and job titles are included.

• If you are directing enquiries to a colleague, make sure that they are available during your absence, are aware that you are enlisting their assistance, and are happy to be the point of contact while you are away.

• If you are reachable while you are away, say so. This might be a matter of adding a phrase like “I will be checking my emails from time to time”, or you might be willing to take phone calls. If that is the case, include your number: “I will be available on xxxxx xxxxxx” or “please text me on xxxxx xxxxxx and I will get back to you.”

• If you are reachable while you are away, but would prefer not to be contacted, it is quite acceptable to say “If your enquiry is urgent, please call me…”, which will deter most people and ensure that you are not inundated with calls.

• End your message politely. If you have not re-directed the recipient to a colleague, say something like “I will be in touch with you as soon as possible after my return.”

• Finally, remember to switch off your out of office when you return. It’s really frustrating trying to communicate with your newly-returned colleague and having your email bounce back when you can clearly see the recipient sitting on the opposite side of the office!


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