From asking for a promotion to making a complaint, here are five ways to begin a difficult work email

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Penelope Travers

It's not something anyone likes doing, but chances are you'll have to write a difficult work email at some point in your career. 

Whether it' asking for that elusive pay rise, making a complaint about a colleague, turning down a job offer... it can all get pretty awkward, especially if you're not sure about the wording.

And if recent research on how to sign off emails is anything to go by, wording is EVERYTHING (hint: never use 'best').

So we've asked expert Rob Ashton, founder and CEO of business-writing trainers Emphasis, to tell us the best way to begin those tough digital conversations. 

Work scenario 1: You're asking for a promotion


Asking for a promotion? Don't jump in straight with your request

Think you deserve a promotion or payrise for all the hard work you're putting in? Well you know the saying, don't ask, don't get...

What to avoid: “It’s important to lead the person you’re emailing through a logical thought process. Don’t leap straight in with your request or even with the problem or issue you’re trying to address. That will just alienate them or get them off-side, leaving you with an uphill battle to fight,” Rob says.

What to write instead: 'I’ve been working here for three years now and am really enjoying it. However, I’ve been feeling recently that the experience I’ve gained could well be of use in a more senior position.'

Work scenario 2: You're making a complaint

woman office

When making a complaint, don't start off on a negative note

This can be a tricky one. Ranting to your work BFF about an annoying colleague/assignment is one thing, but making a formal complaint is a whole other kettle of fish. 

What to avoid: Rob says starting off on a negative note will only alienate your boss, so instead, start with something positive and then follow up with the complication.

What to write instead: '[colleague's name] is generally fitting in well and has already made a positive contribution. However, I’m a bit concerned about a couple of things.'

And with a sensitive subject like this, Rob says it's also great to follow up with a face-to-face meeting, “Email is not a good medium for complex or emotive issues. Continuing the email with ‘Could we have a quick chat when you’re next free?’ would be the best way forward in cases like this.”

Work scenario 3: You're chasing up something


Need a reference? Go in with a dual approach

Whether you're waiting for a reply for a job application or document, chasing is something you have to do on a daily basis. However, you'd be surprised how many are too polite to do it, at the risk of being “annoying”.

What to avoid: Again, Rob says never to go in cold.

What to write instead: 'It was great to speak with you last week. Just wondering if you’ve had a chance to dig out [the document name] we discussed/look at my application.'

Work scenario 4: You need a reference

woman desk office

Never go in cold if you're chasing something

That awkward stage where you've landed your dream job, but the only thing standing in the way is a reference which your soon-to-be old boss was meant to have sent a week ago.

What to avoid: No one likes passive aggressive people, so don't go straight in pointing out you've been waiting and/or implying that your boss has been lazy. Instead, go for a “dual approach”, starting off with a compliment, then going into your request.

What to write: 'I hope you’re well. I gather [from the news or from speaking to another employee] that the company’s going from strength to strength. That’s great to hear. I certainly look back at my time there with affection.

'Since then, I’ve been [insert relevant info], which has been great. I’ve now been offered a new role at [company name]. Would you mind if I gave your name as a referee?'

Work scenario 5: You need to turn down a job offer


Don't burn any bridges when turning down a job offer

You've got two job offers? Congratulations! Unfortunately, that does means you have to decline one of them. Which is a bit tricky considering you applied to it in the first place and don't want to seem, well, rude.

What to avoid: Rob says, “Be careful with this situation. Employers are human too. They will have invested a lot of time in selecting you as their ideal candidate, and rebuffing them will definitely come as a severe blow. Be gentle with them.

“Again, start with a positive. Say how great it was to meet the interviewer(s) and how impressed you were with the company. Then add in the complication: for example, you’ve received another offer or you’re not sure you’re the ideal person for the role after all, now that you’ve learnt more about it.

“You also want to make sure you don't burn any bridges.”

What to write: 'I’ve spent a lot of time agonising over my decision. But I’ve concluded that it would be best all round if I didn’t take up your offer.

'I really believe in [company name] and would like to stay in touch. Do let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to help you.'

Images: Rex, Thinkstock

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Penelope Travers

Penny Travers is a freelance writer covering anything from beauty and fashion to travel and lifestyle. She has a penchant for cheese, karaoke and shoes. Not necessarily in that order.

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