How to Assign a Task in Email

Based on what I have heard in business writing classes over the past couple of days, I am inspired to share tips on how to assign a task in email–and how not to. Listen in on what people told me (with details disguised):

I got an email from my manager that said, "Please arrange for a 20th anniversary tea. Thanks." That’s all it said.

My manager sent me an email that said "Let’s have a meeting with Gabriel, Renato, and Sylvia. Please schedule." The message didn’t say how soon, for how long, for what purpose, or whether the meeting should be by phone, in person, or by WebEx.

My manager forwards me email all the time, with just this note: "Please handle this." The only problem is that the email threads are a mile long, and I have no idea what they are about.

To assign a task by email, do what the managers above did not do: provide enough information for the person to complete the task efficiently.

To know what to include, imagine you are talking with the other person. What would he or she ask? Consider these questions: Who? What? Where? How? How soon? When? Why? How many?

In the opening scenario above, the employee needed to know, at a minimum, whom the 20th anniversary tea would honor–one person or many people? And how soon should it be? Later the employee would need to confirm the guest list, the budget for the event, and other details.

Of course, different people need different amounts of information. An experienced employee may need very little. But someone new to the task may have many questions, even "What’s a 20th anniversary tea?"

Since it may not be easy to recognize all the questions the employee may need answered–especially when you are in a hurry–it makes sense to include something like this:

Let me know if you have questions. You can reach me by phone tomorrow [include the number], or email me.

But how about that long forwarded message, the one that says only "Please handle this"? If you are doing the forwarding, tell the other person what needs to be handled. Taking just a minute to describe the situation (assuming you are aware of it) could save the employee an hour of piecing together what is required. Here is an example of a brief explanation:

Please handle Marty’s request below. As you will see, he wants an exception to the records management policy, and he hasn’t been able to get an answer from the research group. Run it by Dr. Katz, then get back to Marty. Thanks.

As with so many communications, the best practice for assigning a task involves imagining yourself in your reader’s place. How much does your reader know? What does he or she need in order to accomplish the task? Yes, it takes time to think about these questions, but doing so is likely to lead to much better responses and much happier employees–both of which will save us time in the future.

Lynn