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April 2024
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Out of the Office?

Don’t leave an auto reply that sounds like you’re out of your mind.

By John Cadley

Illustration of vacant desk and chair

Tethered as we are to our computers, there are times when we must be away from them (taking a shower, having an emergency appendectomy). Even then, however, we are expected (one could almost say required) to explain why we’re away. Seeing as we can’t do this ourselves, either because we have shampoo in our eyes or we’re under general anesthesia, we have the so-called OOO (out-of-office response). This is a reply you compose ahead of time that your computer automatically sends to all incoming emails explaining why you cannot respond immediately to the sender’s ever-so-urgent matter.

The type of OOO you compose will depend on (1) the length of time you’ll be gone and (2) the type of person you are. It might only be for an hour while you take lunch, or a day or two at a business seminar, or two weeks while you’re on vacation. If you just got fired, it will be forever, which opens up a whole different set of possible OOOs. This is when Human Resources might want to review the file marked Vindictive Ex-Employees Sending Rude—Not to Mention Potentially Embarrassing—Company-Wide Nastygrams.

On the other hand, if you are leaving voluntarily to take another job, you can make a grand display of magnanimity: I will be leaving the company as of (date) for an exciting new career opportunity. It’s been a great ride at a GREAT company and, while I might not miss the work (ha, ha, just kidding), I will truly miss my wonderful colleagues who have become like family. Let’s stay in touch! While they find my replacement, you can contact (name of the poor underling now doing their job and yours) for any further assistance. Goodbye, sayonara, and arrivederci!

I used to get emails like this during my office days. They made me laugh. Not only were they completely disingenuous, they were also a nauseating example of somebody obsequiously covering their you-know-what in case that exciting career opportunity crumbled like a stale cookie and they had to come crawling back.

This standard reply would seem to suffice nicely— if you consider yourself a standard person. Alas, most do not.

These examples aside, however, the standard OOO would be something like: I will be out of the office from (date) to (date) and will have limited access to email. If this is urgent, please contact (name of someone who has reluctantly agreed to clean up your messes while you’re away). Otherwise, I will respond to your email upon my return.

This standard reply would seem to suffice nicely—if you consider yourself a standard person. Alas, most do not. Extremely conscientious people who have to use the bathroom will leave an OOO stating: I will be unable to access email from 11:12 a.m., October 29, 2019, to 11:26 a.m., October 29, 2019, after which time I will respond by 11:27 a.m., October 29, 2019. And that’s only if they don’t actually take the computer into the bathroom with them.

Some people try to be funny—“try” being the operative word. There are dozens of websites listing hilarious examples of OOO messages, including this ditty: I’m in Nashville / It may seem quite rash / Did I really think I’d meet Johnny Cash (who happens to be dead) / Don’t bat an eyelash / I’ll be back in a flash. DO NOT leave an OOO like this. If you do, you won’t just be telling people you’re away; you’ll be making them wish you’d stay away.

Writing this, I couldn’t help but wonder what OOOs might have been like if they had email in, say, George Washington’s day: I will be out of the office from April 19, 1775, until September 3, 1783, to fight the American Revolutionary War. Hence, I will be virtually inaccessible by email. If the matter is urgent, and—excuse me while I dodge another musket ball—I do mean urgent, you can try to reach me at If that doesn’t work, please contact Paul Revere and tell him to get back on his horse and deliver the message. And let me repeat—be sure it’s urgent. A brigadier general in the 6th Connecticut Regiment sent me a supposedly humorous poem recently to say he was taking a vacation in Nashville. He is now a private, gathering firewood at Valley Forge.

Guess hilarious OOOs weren’t so funny then, either.

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