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Freedom of Information Staff Guide: What to Do When You're Out of the Office

  1. Post and faxes
  2. Email
  3. Voicemail
  4. Absent colleagues

Any written request for information delivered to any member of staff is covered by the Freedom of Information Act. In most cases, a response has to be sent within 20 working days (see Dealing with requests for information). The 20 working day deadline is based on the date when the request arrives at the School (e.g. in the School's post room or on the School's servers), not on when it is opened or read by the person to whom it is addressed. Staff who are going to be away from the office for more than a few days must therefore take the steps outlined below to ensure that requests are handled appropriately in their absence. 

1. Post and faxes

Arrange for a colleague to check and deal with your incoming post and faxes, including items marked 'confidential' and internal items (which may be external requests forwarded by other staff). Make sure that the person whom you ask to do this understands that any requests for information which arrive will need to be processed in accordance with the School's procedures for Dealing with requests for information. 

2. Email

Set up an out of office auto reply on your SOAS email account. Alternatively, arrange for emails to be forwarded to another email account which a colleague will monitor while you are away.

If you set up an out of office reply, your text should include:

  • How long you will be away or when you will be back in the office;
  • The email address of a colleague (or a departmental email address) which can be used for work-related correspondence; and
  • The following text: 

If you are requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act, the Environmental Information Regulations or the Data Protection Act, please forward your enquiry to dataprotection@soas.ac.uk where it will be dealt with by the School’s Information Compliance Manager. SOAS will begin processing your request once it is received by that address.

The Information Commissioner (the agency which regulates Freedom of Information) has said that, provided staff set up an out of office auto reply which includes a forwarding address to which enquirers are asked to send their requests, a request for information sent to the email account of an absent member of staff will not be "received" by the School until the sender forwards it to the address specified.

Assistance is also available from the IT helpdesk. Don't forget to turn off your out of office reply or message forwarding when you return to the office.

As out of office replies can cause disruption or annoyance to mailing lists, it is advisable to unsubscribe or suspend your membership in mailing lists before setting up an out of office reply. 

3. Voicemail

Although Freedom of Information requests must be in writing, this restriction does not apply to enquiries under the Environmental Information Regulations. The Regulations allow individuals to request information about the environment, defined broadly (see Dealing with requests for information), and allow requests to be delivered verbally by telephone or in person. Although most staff are unlikely to receive an Environmental Information request, it is good practice to ensure that incoming calls will be handled appropriately if you are going to be out of the office for a significant period. This could include re-programming your voicemail to indicate when you will be back, and to give a number which callers can ring instead, such as a general office number or a colleague's number. Alternatively, you could divert incoming calls to another extension which you know will be monitored, with the permission of the person responsible for that extension. 

4. Absent colleagues

Staff who have to go on leave suddenly for personal reasons, and staff on extended sick leave, may not be able to make arrangements to manage their correspondence in their absence. When this happens, the line manager of the absent staff member should ensure that post and faxes are being checked as indicated above. If necessary, IT should be contacted to arrange for access to the email accounts of absent staff, to check emails which may have arrived and to set up message forwarding or an out of office reply.

Last updated January 2008