Support and admin staff are often tasked with doing what it takes to ensure that an employee or project team executes their tasks on time. That means anticipating overdue tasks and initiating solutions before they're needed, ideally in an elegant and respectful way.
I've worked with team members who are afraid or slow to speak up when a team member who already has overdue items is in danger of missing an upcoming due date. Even though it's ideal to spot potentially overdue tasks well ahead of time, from a team culture perspective, they don't feel safe to say something. Some don't want to cause a rift in the team, and others don't want to create unnecessary conflict with other employees by micromanaging due dates not assigned to them. Or they have their own overdue tasks and don't want to draw attention to themselves.
I believe you can have the best of both worlds and avoid the negative side effects of overdue tasks -- namely, harming the experience of your stakeholders, users, customers, or clients -- with a little proactive leadership. Here are my 10 favorite ways to nicely ask for an overdue item, whether via email or live.
10 Ways to Politely Ask About Overdue Tasks
- Restate the need for the overdue item, the original deadline, and add implications of inaction and extension of support.
"This report had a due date of Friday afternoon so we'd have the weekend to course-correct. If we don't have this data, I won't be able to create the financial projections [Entrepreneur] needs for our incentive structure, and we'll put the team into rush mode over the weekend. How can we help?"
2. Forward an email to "bump it up" with a request that would take under 2 minutes to fulfill.
"Hi there - I know you're busy. Bumping this up. Just need a yes/no - context in line 2. Send me a voice memo if it's easier!"
3. Forward an email and ask for a timeline.
"Will you please send me an update on this as soon as you can?
4. Ask for a status update and offer help (and mean it).
"Are you still on track for this report? How can I help accelerate progress?"
5. Proactively draft a response, restate the deadline, and ask for edits.
"I took a shot at drafting these interview questions, since the editor needs them Wednesday. Can you please personalize and edit as necessary? Here's the file to review."
6. Humor (note: exercise discretion and tact, or this will backfire hard).
"Hey, any chance I can get this overdue report in the next decade?"
7. Direct call or text.
"Please block time today to call our vendor. We owed him a decision last Friday and are a key account for their upcoming quarter."
8. Batch forward (See #2) with other pending items to force a time block.
Precede this missive with a short call or email that says something like, "Hi X, I'm awaiting several items from you that are preventing progress on Project Z. I'm going to forward them so they're at the top of your inbox. All I need is yes-no decisions on 5 things. All the context is in each email. Please call me if you need clarification or want to talk through it one by one."
9. Suggest an alternate solution and problem-solve together.
Your colleague may be procrastinating because the project or process is incongruous with his or her work habits. "Would it be more appropriate if Chris started this task, and you came in for edits and revisions? What's an easier, faster way for us to make progress?"
10. Reaffirm priorities and workload with the colleague.
"We originally decided that Task A would be due last Friday, but I know you're juggling multiple projects. Does Task A need to happen right now, or should we readjust the deadline to a more suitable time? What can we drop or delay to support you?"
Overdue Task Management is Expectation Management
There's no one-size-fits-all way to ask for an overdue item. Most project management tools and customer relationship management tools include built-in email reminders and follow-up tasks to mitigate overdue tasks; even Slack can automatically send you a notification to return to a message at a certain date and time.
While it can be frustrating to see a backlog of outstanding items days before a due date, employees may have different ideas of task priority and urgency. Or they're simply distracted, overworked, and would very much appreciate the reminder. Manage your own tasks and due dates in the way that best supports your progress, and remember: not everyone works the same way you do, and that's a good thing.