Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:
Person A emails Person B: Hi, Person B. I have a question about this thing.
Person B: I don’t have the answer to this, but Person C (cc’ed) does.
If you work in an office, you almost certainly have received an email like this one. Someone copies you on a message with the expectation that you will pick up the conversation and answer the question that Person A originally sent.
I posed question on Twitter and was surprised by the results.
Many of the responses didn’t think much of it: “happens all the time,” “this is normal,” “yeah, so?” etc. But far more were of the “it depends” variety: it depends on whether Person C actually knows the answer; it depends on whether Person B just wants to pass the buck on saying no; it depends on the power relationship between B and C.
Only one person mentioned what I find annoying about this [admittedly common] practice: that I don’t expect needing to respond to anything where I am in the cc line. Perhaps that is an indication of how long I’ve been on the internets: being in the cc means I need to be aware of this, but there is no expectation of needing a reply.
Email is messy.
Instead, what if Person B had reached out privately to Person C and said “Hey, Person A has a question. Can you (1) let me know how to respond or (2) if you would rather me to pass it on to you?” If Person C responds with #1, then Person B can send Person A an answer to their question directly. If they respond with #2, then Person B can connect to Person A to Person C.
This action offers the additional benefit of confirming that Person C is indeed the right person to handle the inquiry. If not, Person B can search elsewhere in the organization for the right person to contact and avoid sending Person A on a wild goose chase.
While this results in a small amount of extra work, it has a few benefits: (1) Person A will get the response they need in fewer steps. (2) Person B takes an active role in the inquiry. (3) Person C has the option to delegate the inquiry to Person B, rather than being obliged to take it on themselves.
Admittedly, this whole situation falls squarely into the category of “pet peeves.” I don’t make a fuss about this if someone on my team does this (and it happens all that time). However, in situations where I am Person B, I’ve been trying to seek out answers for Person A rather than quickly pass the buck to a colleague, even when that would be more convenient for me. In most cases, Person A reached out to me because I was a trusted contact, and so I appreciate the opportunity to reinforce that trusting relationship by not wasting their time and shuttling them around via email.
That said, I do wish we would stop cc’ing people if they are actually expected to respond. 😉