Whether you’re following up after an amazing interview, inquiring after a sales lead, or asking… yet again… for an asset from a coworker, navigating the follow-up email can be daunting.
After all, the line between charmingly persistent and roll-your-eyes annoying is thin and, unfortunately, there’s no strict manual on how to navigate that space.
“There isn’t a rule specific to the number of times you should follow up,” says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore. “Etiquette is situational, so it depends on the person and it depends on the relationship.”
With that in mind, here are a few common situations you might find yourself in at work and a bit of advice on how to keep yourself on the right side of the follow-up line.
Situation 1: You’re following up after a job interview
Even if you nailed your interview, a follow-up email or note is always a good idea. But finding the balance between keeping your name and dazzling personality at the front of your interviewer’s mind and poking them until they hate you can be tough. Whitmore suggests making sure your follow-up happens on their timeline.
“I definitely recommend asking the employer when would be a good time to follow up and how they would like to be contacted,” says Whitmore. “If they say two weeks, then you contact them in two weeks. Not before, not after, but in two weeks. If they don’t answer, then give it another day or two and contact them again. The point is to try and connect with them without being a pest.”
When you do follow up, you might want to mention something that you talked about in the interview to reconnect or briefly restate what you feel you can contribute to the position.
Situation 2: You’re following up with a coworker
If you’re relying on a coworker for something and they don’t get it to you, it can be hard to reign in the impulse to scream. But outside of the world of The Bachelor mansion, seeing a person you’ve screamed at every day is awkward. So instead, you gently follow up.
“This can be a little bit trickier because when you see these people regularly, you don’t want to come across as being a bully or a combative person,” Whitmore says. “From the start, be specific about your deadline, otherwise people may not feel your sense of urgency. Remind them of that deadline in follow-up emails. But if the project is urgent and you’re relying on another person for information, sometimes email is not the best way to follow up. Sometimes you’ll have better results by going by their office or setting a face-to-face meeting.”
If they’re running extremely late, you need to choose your words carefully. Some people can receive a blunt message—i.e. “The project was due last Friday. Where is it?”—and not be offended, but you have to know exactly who you’re talking to before you try it.
If you’re even slightly unsure how they’ll perceive a direct approach, Whitmore suggests using polite but clear phrases like, “If you need more time, please let me know,” “If there’s anything I can do to help speed things along, please let me know,” or “If there’s any more information that you need that I can provide, please let me know.”
Situation 3: You’re following up with a higher-up
Following up with a higher-up and actually getting a timely response can be an uphill battle, but Whitmore says that by knowing a bit about C-level executives, you’re more likely to at least get your note in front of them.
“I find that C-suite executives are more apt to respond first thing in the morning, usually before 8 a.m.,” Whitmore says. “So, try sending your follow-up email earlier in the morning. I don’t mean sending an email at 3 a.m.; you don’t want to come across like you don’t have a life. I’m talking about sending something at 7:30 a.m. versus 3 p.m. when that person may not even be in the office.”
Situation 4: You’re following up… again… and again… and again… and still getting nothing
“It’s perfectly fine to ask if you should stop following up,” Whitmore says. “Asking the question releases that person from the responsibility of having to call you back. Oftentimes I’ll say to a client, ‘I haven’t heard from you in some time. If you’re not interested in moving forward, I’d like to close the file so I can move forward to another project.’”
The same can be true when following up after a job interview. If you haven’t heard back within the timeframe you agreed upon, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask if the position has been filled.