Work

Inside the Weird World of Out-of-Office Messages

A hand holds up a smartphone on which there is an out-of-office message. In the background is an office and also a concert.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Unsplash and Sitthiphong/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

With many people squeezing in vacation time before the summer ends, this is the season of out-of-office messages. Most of them contain similarly bland boilerplate (“I am off work until the 7th and will answer your message upon my return”), but some of them are decidedly more interesting.

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In a sea of generic out-of-office autoreplies, the ones that deviate from the norm can amuse, baffle, or in some cases make us really uncomfortable.

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Falling squarely into the “uncomfortable” category are the autoreplies that inexplicably overshare details that no one in the person’s work life needs (or often wants) to know. The vendor who emails you to ask if you’d like to change your printing contract doesn’t really need to know the details about the eye surgery you’re having or the comedic novel you’re writing. And yet, some people feel compelled to share. This one, submitted by a reader, is an exemplar of the category:

I once emailed someone I barely knew to check on some materials he was supposed to send my boss and I received an auto-reply letting the world know that he was away in Vegas with his “boyz” to celebrate his divorce. I still don’t know why he felt this was important to share with business contacts. “I’m away for the week” was all the information I needed.

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Here’s another memorable oversharer, this one with a side of smugness:

I had a former coworker who was FULL of weird out-of-offices, including:

· “Working on my tan lines, not my emails!”

· “I am spending time with family today—some things are MORE important than work.”

· “Celebrating [child’s name] birthday today with a dinosaur themed party and reminiscing on this sweet baby I brought home from the hospital 8 years ago #momtears” 

· “We all need breaks from time to time. Today I will be disconnecting from all things work, and going for a walk to smell the roses and soak in the sunshine.”

 I think important context here is that no matter what the details added were, it always had this aggressive tone of “I’m taking a break and breaks are IMPORTANT.” Which I agree with, but it felt like it was almost aggressive/accusatory, and more importantly: this person was without a doubt the meanest, cruelest, least understanding and empathetic person I’ve ever worked with who ran her staff into the ground with urgent demands and expectations.

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And some oversharing messages are simply tone-deaf:

My current (not great) boss sent an out-of-office recently detailing how he would be out because he was on his personal sailboat all day, sailing from vacation destination X back to our port city. At length. In a pandemic. When we all had our wages frozen at the start of the crisis.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from those who share too much are those who share too little, sometimes to the point of farce:

After I told her to put an out-of-office message up, a recent grad I supervised once put up a message that simply said “I am not here.” I learned to be pretty specific with instructions with her after that.

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In a special category of their own are the people whose autoreply use becomes excessive; the message is turned on even though the person is in the office, just to update colleagues on the minutiae of their day:

I had a co-worker on a previous team who not only set an out-of-office for hours outside her regular shift (which was regular banker’s hours, nothing weird), but also turned it on literally whenever she left her desk. Lunch break: out-of-office message. Coffee break: out-of-office message. Bathroom break: out-of-office message. Drove me bonkers. I’d just wait until she was back to send any emails. (And then it would take her 45 minutes to an hour to respond anyway, WHICH IS PERFECTLY FINE because her role was not one where anyone would be asking her urgent questions.)

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And we’ve all gotten the vaguely self-important autoreply advising us on the recipient’s inbox management strategies, like this one:

I have a co-worker who has an “always-on” autoreply stating that she “is busy with client meetings during the day” and therefore only checks emails at 9am and 3pm. I understand wanting to set the expectation that people won’t get an immediate response, but it really baffles me. If you are still able to respond within 24 hours, why does anyone need this information? To me it feels like some weird self-help tip or power move that they read somewhere that serves no actual function.

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One step further down that road are the messages that inform us that we may never hear back at all:

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Once I got an auto reply from a stakeholder on a project that said something to the effect of, “Thanks for contacting me. Due to the large volume of email I receive, I don’t read them all. If I haven’t responded within 3 business days, please try again.”

I emailed this person 3 times and never got a response.

It admittedly warms my heart to know that at least one person is using out-of-office messages to imply she’s away from work when she’s actually there, in order to avoid dealing with email entirely:

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I am a project manager at a small-ish nonprofit .. One employee, who is known for being difficult to communicate with in all ways—in person, on the phone, in writing, in group settings, one-on-one—has a permanent automatic reply set up on her email.

She is in the office regularly, but no matter when you email her, you can be guaranteed to get an out-of-office response. The message sometimes changes, which shows me she is fully aware that it’s on, but it usually says something along the lines of, “I will respond to all emails upon my return. Thank you and be blessed!” That’s the entire message. There’s nothing indicating when her “return” will be. This is her permanent auto-response even though she doesn’t go anywhere. (It’s also written in the Papyrus font, even though we have brand standards, but that’s a whole new issue that probably annoys just me and our marketing staff).

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Then there are the excessively honest messages:

I once worked with a guy whose out of office reply stated that he was out at an interview, and whether or not he returned depended on how the interview went. He returned, so I guess it didn’t go THAT well.

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Under the right circumstances, out-of-office replies can even be wielded as a weapon:

One guy quit and left up an out-of-office message with stupid quotes from all of his bosses and seniors over the year—attributed to them by name. Because our IT is so notoriously bad, it took well over a week from them to fully disable his account so that the out-of-office stopped being sent.

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And sometimes they’re just funny because they’re written by humans who are imperfect and make typos:

One of my co-workers, who was involved in a lot of committees and consequently got even more than the usual share of email around my place, put up an OOO message that said she was going to be “on pot for the week of the 15th.” She meant PTO.

Personally, in a time when workplaces standardize so much about their communications, I love that out-of-office messages remain the wild west—a place where you might receive something mundane or might get something wonderfully weird and unexpected. Whether these are professional or not, I hope they stay that way.

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