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Raise your hand if, at this very moment, you have at least one email you should’ve already responded to—a day ago, a week ago, even (eek!) a month ago. And yes, my hand is raised too. I know there’s more than one message I keep forgetting about until right before I fall asleep—at which point I promise myself that I’ll reply first thing tomorrow morning. But I don’t.

Then time passes, and passes some more, and before I know it, I’m facing a situation where it’s almost more embarrassing to respond. Isn’t it just better to pretend that it got caught in spam? No, it’s not!

But to make finally writing that email a little easier, we’ve written out a few steps and example emails that’ll both salvage your professional reputation and make your recipient more understanding of the delay.

How to apologize for a late reply to an email

Once you’ve decided to actually send that email (and you should), here are three basic steps to follow:

1. Acknowledge and apologize for the delay.

While it might be tempting to ignore that it’s been two weeks since you should’ve gotten back to someone and just jump right into the response, both you and your recipient know you were late. Make it clear that it was a mistake on your part to put it off and say you’re sorry. This will help keep your reputation and relationships intact and let your recipient know that you do consider responding to them important.

2. Consider providing a reason.

If it makes sense, consider providing a reason for your delay—for example, if the email was particularly important to you and you wanted to take the time to respond thoughtfully. If you do choose to give a reason, you don’t need to go into detail, so keep this part short. And you don’t need to share more than you’re comfortable with. (So omitting a reason and citing a “personal situation” are both valid choices.)

3. Reply to the original request or question and/or update them if the situation has changed.

Show the person who reached out that you’re not a jerk by doing the best you can to get them the information or help they requested even if it’s a bit late. If their email is no longer relevant, explain why, and when possible offer to help them in some other way.

Examples of emails to send when your response is delayed

Use these example emails for common situations to guide you through writing your own delayed email responses.

Example email response for “friendly” messages that don’t technically require an answer

It’s really easy to procrastinate on replying to these types of emails, because your daily responsibilities usually take precedence. But trust me, it’s better to send a late response than never send one at all. Just make sure to extend a heartfelt apology and prove that despite your tardy response, you’re interested in the other person’s life.

Hi Amy,

Thanks so much for your kind note last month! Yep, it was definitely exciting for our team to get the Wall Street Journal mention—things have been crazy here ever since, which is why I’m so late in answering your email. (I apologize!)

I saw your company recently announced it’s launching a new marketing division. That’s so awesome, congratulations! How’s everything been going over there?

Thank you again, and I hope to see you at another conference in the future.

Best,

Eli

Example email response for messages that asked you for something

Sometimes, someone asks you for help or information and you forget to respond (or put it off because it’s never the right time). You might feel guilty, but you can make it up to the person by offering what help you can now:

Dear James,

Last month, you asked me if I knew anyone who worked at Carol Smith Agency, and I apologize for not answering sooner! Are you still hoping to find a contact there? I just looked through my connections and discovered a couple people who might be helpful. Let me know if you want me to make some introductions.

And if there’s anything else I can do for you, just ask. I promise I’ll try to be quicker next time!

Priya

Example email response for delivering delayed bad news

It’s incredibly easy to put off breaking bad news (and find one million reasons to wait another day or week). However, you have to rip that Band-Aid off eventually.

Hi Maridel,

I hope you’re doing well and that your last semester at Colgate is off to a great start. My sincerest apologies for not getting back to you about the remote internship sooner.

Unfortunately, after taking a closer look, we don’t have the budget for a remote intern this summer. However, you’re clearly talented and motivated, and I’d be more than happy to see if I know anyone at another fintech company who could use a remote intern. Let me know if you’re interested.

Sincerely,

Lucas

Example overdue email response for every other email

For all those miscellaneous, oh-gosh-I-really-have-to-reply emails, you can use this example as a jumping off point.

Dear Sam,

As I was looking through my drafts, I realized I’d never responded to your question about what data I wanted you to add to the alternate Q3 roadmap proposal. I am sincerely sorry for letting the ball drop on this one—in the future, I’ll double-check that I’ve sent my messages to you so it doesn’t happen again.

After meeting with the DevOps team last week, we decided to move forward with the original Q3 roadmap after all.

Apologies again,

Akiko

Answering a late email always requires a little willpower. But you know you’ll feel better once you do it—and now that you have these steps and examples, there’s no excuse not to push “send.”

Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.

Updated 6/22/2022