Email Read Receipts. Does the misuse of minimum effort technology undermine trust between colleagues?

20130113-111352.jpgDo email read receipts make your spirits soar…….? Not mine.

Why do people send them? Many people I’ve spoken to have, like me, been on the receiving end of read receipt misuse. Pointless, irritating and questionable behaviour.

I must admit that when I get one, particularly from repeat offenders, I’m sorely tempted to just delete the email without even reading it. Not quite the user experience (UX) emotion or response I’d imagine programmers, developers or the email sender were looking for.

There are many reasons why people need to send email read receipts. These range from the well-intentioned and legitimate, right through to something more sinister like, a lack of trust between colleagues. Unfortunately the virtually effortless act of sending a read receipt request can lead to misuse and undermine trust (I’ve explained my logic on this previously). Here are some thoughts on why people send them, particularly in relation to colleague to colleague communication.

Legitimate and Well Intentioned. This does what it says on the tin. This is a really important email you need to read. Possibly something that affects your terms of employment, has legal implications or involves money. It’s a bit like the ‘registered post’ package you have to sign for at the front door. A hassle to carry out, but necessary for your protection, and the person sending you the package. These situations are generally few and far between in colleague to colleague communication.

Unconscious Ignorance. I’m being generous here. Some of the ‘read receipt’ emails I’ve seen relate to very innocuous interactions. Why on earth would someone require a read receipt for an invite to an optional lunchtime presentation? I can only assume that it’s because the sender has some email feature set to automatic and isn’t aware of the impact (or how to turn it off). At least they get to feel the pain of the response emails flooding back in their own, undoubtedly, massively overloaded inbox.

Something More Sinister…… I Don’t Trust You! Unless the document falls into the same category as ‘registered post’ I really don’t see the need for the read receipt. The only other conclusion I can draw is that “you don’t trust me to read and act upon your email, so you want evidence in case you need to use it against me”. It’s a bit like sending a ‘cc’ to the boss of a colleague, a sneaky action that undermines trust between colleagues.

The read receipt is undoubtedly a useful feature that has great value, in the right circumstances. However I’m not sure that the potential for misuse by people was fully appreciated. Unfortunately the misuse that is enabled by virtually zero effort (cognitive and physical) turns something useful into a problem. For those on the receiving end the impact can range from mild irritation to something much less desirable, the undermining of trust between colleagues.

Interestingly the technical community can also feel the pain of their creation. Here’s an interesting story about an email migration project on The project encountered 24,368 unread ‘read receipts’ held by a single person (the mind boggles at the state of that inbox!) This is a technical account but worth reading, particularly for the first comment……, “Read receipts have to be the most inane and narcissistic feature of email. They’re the first thing I disable when being setup under a new email system.” Nicely put….! Perhaps we should all get our IT departments to follow this advice, for the sake of trust between colleagues.

I’ve not got much to add to that other than what I’ve said before, ’emails don’t send emails, people do’. Same for the ‘read receipts’, it’s all about how we choose to behave.

So, what’s the PONT?

  • There are legitimate and well-intentioned reasons for sending ‘read receipts’. Think ‘registered post’, otherwise don’t use it.
  • The impact of a ‘read receipt’ is two-way. Think about what your request means for your recipient? Also, do you really want 24,000 confirmation emails back in your inbox?
  • It’s all about behaviours. We have choices about whether to send ‘read receipt’ or not; ‘read receipts’ don’t send themselves, people do.

Photo source: Check out the Paul Cunningham post on

Good News.
There is something practical you can do to switch off the annoying read receipts.
Here is an excellent link from @Darrenruddick, thanks Darren.;_Disable_the_read_receipt_annoyance.aspx

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

17 Responses

  1. I hate read receipts, I learned a long time ago to turn them off and refuse to have anything to do with them, I never request them and I certainly never send them. In a previous job, having sent the read receipt seemed to be read by other staff (particularly management) to mean “I have dropped everything I was doing and am now slavishly working to solve your query”, and they’d expect it done almost immediately! Infuriating device!

  2. Great post. I detest them and have had them used against me in anger. This was ridiculous of course – I always display my messages in preview mode, so I had read the mails whilst being unaware that the person had requested a read receipt. Ban ’em I say!!
    Curious to know whether anyone has ever been brave enough to ask an offender to refrain?

  3. I have them automatically switched off – no-one ever get a received or a read receipt. 99% of read receipts are a pointless and inane waste of time. One big problem however is we probably never actually teach people about how best to use email and email features. Perhaps your next blog could tackle the scourge that is ‘reply to all’ – frankly I don’t care you can/cannot attend ,that you’re off somewhere on holiday, that you want something added to the agenda: the meeting organisers do – GO AWAY – sorry, rant over, but its an interesting topic for a blog. Of course it just my be that I’m intolerant. Enjoyed the blog thanks.

  4. Read receipts simply don’t work in many email clients. Therefore, if I receive one, it gives me the impression that the person sending it doesn’t have a great grasp of technology.


  5. I use read receipts. Much of my email comes via corporate MS Outlook server where they are enforced. I display the “Originator Delivery Requested” flag in my inbox, which shows a check mark next to any emails sent with read receipt. This way I can spot the really important emails where someone wanted to be sure I got it. They are not part of the SMTP standard and so are not generally enforced outside but they are nevertheless a useful tool within a large organisation, My preference is generally to have a conversation alongside an important email (phone call or IM) but sometimes, particularly in high volume settings, or working across time zones, a read receipt is pretty useful. I would estimate that I send a read receipt request maybe 2 times per week, that’s out of maybe 100-150 emails I send each week.

    It’s interesting people talking about trust issues. I look at it the other way around: if I get a read receipt back then I can rest easy and know my colleague is taking care of whatever it was I asked them, rather than having to chase them up to check if they got the email. If you have trust issues within your workplace, it seems unlikely that read receipts are going to be the root cause (I might be wrong, perhaps they really are that bad?). Probably better to spend some time building trust with colleagues through team building/trust building or whatever, instead of hating on a particular tool. Like any, I think they are open to mis-use/abuse but I don’t accept that they are inhrerently bad or evil.

  6. Mark Woods

    Couldnt agree more with the comments regarding the abuse of read receipts. My other email annoyance is the high importance icon. A colleague of mine insists on sending every message as of ‘high importance’ even when enquiring about my availability for Friday night drinks.

    I have found always found that making the effort to walk to someones desk and speak face to face works much better for me, it gives me chance to engage is constructive conversation about my work instead of sending and receiving a list of intructions – the conversation allows the opportunity to suggest better ways of meeting the objective and often provides me with a greater understanding too.

  7. I used to use them when first using mail at work – mainly to ensure that people had seen the information they needed to see, especially at a time when most where new to email and some didn’t look at their email often (or delegated retrieving and printing it out to assistants). But that wasn’t a Microsoft programme and it dealt with them a bit more smoothly, and it was very useful in not requiring people to email back & clutter up my inbox. Don’t think I’ve used receipts for years. I don’t even use email as much.

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