Email at Work – Avoid These “Dozen Digital Disasters”

“It’s not the most intellectual job in the world,
but I do need to know the letters.”

– Vanna White (Co-Host, “Wheel of Fortune”)

ACTUAL “CASE HISTORY”: It’s happened to everyone, including you, me and all of our friends: an email sent to the wrong person, or containing a message we wish we did not transmit. On this topic, chances are you could probably share a few “digital disaster” stories of your own. The subject is that important, though, that it’s worth devoting a few minutes of time, consideration and reflection, especially considering the potential risk it represents.

Enrique was the Dean of a prestigious architecture school. He was also a well-known architectural critic, who wrote articles for many magazines and was often interviewed in the mainstream media. As Dean, he oversaw the school’s faculty, and had significant input on whether non-tenured faculty members would receive reappointments to their positions.

When the question of Helena’s faculty reappointment arose, Enrique knew there would be strong feelings both “pro” and “con.” Due to Helena’s renown in landscape architecture, she was particularly well known and highly regarded, and was considered a “darling” of the rapidly growing followers of “green,” or eco-friendly, architecture movement. However, due to Helena’s “strong” personality, which included a penchant for participation in controversial political demonstrations, and an alleged “fondness” for illegal substances, many of the tenured faculty saw Helena more a liability to the school than an asset.

In response to an email sent to Enrique by a trusted faculty friend, Enrique replied, “I have no such concerns; as soon as Helena finds the right medication for her psychosis, all will be fine.” Enrique was careful not to send the email to anyone else, but only to his friend. Unfortunately, at just about that time, the school’s email system seemed to freeze up, and Enrique’s email was never transmitted.

The next day a software engineer working on the school’s main computer server found the problem in the email system, and fixed it. That is when the email about “Helena’s psychosis” was transmitted, but for some unknown reason it was distributed to every person in Enrique’s email address book, including all of his worldwide media contacts. This gave Helena’s supporters on the school’s Board of Trustees ammunition in their quest to change the school’s “social awareness.” Long story short: Enrique was required to resign, and then sued by Helena for defamation. With considerable effort, we were able to resolve both matters for Enrique on reasonable terms, but the damage to his finances, relations and reputation were substantial.

LESSON TO LEARN: Email is a powerful communication medium. Like anything powerful, its power both helps and hurts. If not used wisely, with discretion and care, it can cause great damage to your interests, career and reputation. When emailing, you must be careful, very careful.

Email is probably underestimated as a potential tool of self-destruction due to its being so commonplace in our lives. Some people send and receive scores – even hundreds – of emails a day. It’s easy to let your “email guard” down, especially when you have limited time to respond to an avalanche of emails in your “in box.” But keeping your “email guard” continually up is an absolute must.

  • Before you write an email, ask yourself, “Who might be offended or upset by this?”
  • Before you reply to an email, ask yourself, “Must I send this now, while I am uncertain of a best response, or even emotional?”
  • Before you press “send,” ask yourself, “How could this possibly hurt me?”

Will “common sense” and good judgment suffice to protect you? No, for two important reasons. First, today’s “ultra-sensitivity” requires “hyper-attentiveness” to possible risks of offending people. Many believe this “ultra-sensitivity” defies common sense. Second, the nature of email, itself, creates unusual risks that defy common experience: nowhere else do you have such things as “reply-all” buttons, the ability to respond so hastily, and the possibility that your employer can be identified by your workplace email address. With emails, more than “common sense” and old-fashioned good judgment is necessary.

The lesson is this: “There are no erasers on your keyboard.” Once an email is sent, it is sent forever. Treat emails as you would sharp knives, bearing in mind that a single momentary “slip” can cause untold pain.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Read over these “Dozen Ways to Avoid Digital Disasters,” and then read them over again. Additional effort to protect yourself regarding emails at work is necessary, because common sense and good judgment won’t suffice. Here’s the twelve things you need to bear in mind:

A. Today’s Ultra-Sensitivity Requires Hyper-Attentiveness

1. Insensitive Words: Words are important, especially at work. You may think “crippled” is not offensive, but many disabled people do. You many think “Oriental” is not offensive, but many Asian people do. You may not think “the girls” is offensive, but many women do. While no one can be 100% sensitive, everyone can do their best to avoid words that may hurt. A single wrong word can do considerable undue damage. Try to be as careful as you can with each and every word you use in an email at work; remember that no email, and no word in an email, can be “erased.”

2. Unnecessary Personal “Descriptors”: When writing a workplace email, is it really necessary to call attention to the fact that a person is Irish, or female, or “older,” or Muslim, or even overweight? There are times that such “descriptors” are relevant to the matter at hand. But if not, your use of such descriptors could be characterized as your being discriminatory, harassing, demeaning, humiliating or intimidating. It’s not nice to have others characterize you as discriminating, harassing, demeaning, humiliating or intimidating, but it could be devastating to be called such things at work.

3. Humor and Sarcasm Can Easily Backfire: What seems humorous to you might be hurtful to others who may not share your sense of humor. Sarcasm, especially, can seem “biting” and hurtful. We all like a good joke, but sharing a joke in a workplace email could end up being at your great expense. I acknowledge that the quote I use at the top of this Newsletter could be interpreted as suggesting “All blondes are dumb.” Fortunately for me, I am not an employee, and I have no employees whose husbands are blonde.

4. “Anger” is Only One Letter Away from “Danger”: We all get angry at times, even if some of us don’t show it. If you are angry about something, especially about an email you have just received, I implore you NOT to send any responsive emails until the anger has disappeared, and then after at least 24 hours has passed. Anger has a way of affecting your judgment without your knowing it. Anger also has a way of “seeping” from your fingers right through your keyboard into your emails. In my career as an attorney, the very worst tongue-lashing I ever received from a judge was from now-Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor because she did not like something I had written to an opposing counsel while I was angry. It was a great lesson; I truly appreciate it to this day. Luckily, it did not hurt my client’s case. You may not be so lucky if the equivalent happens to you at work.

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5. Reference to Sexual Acts, Private Parts, Illicit Acts or Illegal Drugs is Career Suicide: References to sex and illegal drugs in emails at work are the equivalent to saying, “Please fire me.” Though they can creep into any conversation between friends and colleagues, they are surely “cause” for firing. Believe it or not, one client – a grandfather in his 70’s – lost his cherished career because he asked a female colleague who had recently returned from maternity leave if she was breast-feeding. An uncalled-for overreaction? Most say yes, but that has not helped him overcome one of the biggest disappointments of his life.

6. Use of Profanity or References to Violence are Also Asking for Trouble: Would you utter the word “bomb” during an airplane flight? Would you yell “fire” in a crowded theater? I sure hope not, because it’s likely to get you into very serious trouble. Well, so can saying “I’ll kill her,” or “I’d love to punch him in the nose,” or things like that in a workplace email. One client, a young hotel executive, was fired without a moment’s notice for sending an email to a colleague suggesting that he could surely beat his boss if the two ever had a fist fight. It is amazing how sensitive people have become to some things. But it’s reality, so we might as well deal with it smartly.

B. The Nature of Email Creates New Risks

7. Personal Email Use – of Any Kind – is Almost Always “Cause” for Firing: Believe it or not, many companies’ employment policies provide that personal use of office equipment and facilities – including email – is “cause” for firing. Is it likely that you will be fired for emailing your spouse “Honey, I will be home late tonight”? Probably not, but why take the chance? And, too, if someone is looking for a reason to demote or terminate you – whatever their motivation – why make it easier for them?

8. The Previous Person’s Subject Line Could become Your “Noose”: I am constantly bewildered when people reply to others’ emails without changing or updating the previous person’s Subject Line. For example, I have many times emailed to lawyers representing employers using this Subject Line: “The Employer Committed Fraudulent Acts.” Sure enough, the lawyers for the employers often reply using the exact same Subject Line in their own emails. People who later read these emails from those employers’ lawyers interpreted the Subject Lines as their admissions that their clients had engaged in wrongdoing. Need I say more? Try not to do the same to yourself; always make your Subject Line a summary of your message, not the other person’s message.

9. Might This Information be Confidential?: This is perhaps the most underappreciated “risky email behavior” there is at work. One of our clients requested a leave of absence for medical reasons – after being diagnosed with AIDS – in a confidential email sent to his employer’s HR representative. The HR representative then sent the email to several others, and copies to our client’s supervisors, violating our client’s rights to privacy of medical information under federal law. When he was later discharged, this violation of federal law was not only the basis of a threatened lawsuit, but was also the reason the HR representative was demoted. Don’t let that happen to you.

10. Get Written Approval before Sending Files Home for Weekend or Holiday Work: It is increasingly common for employees to send company documents to their home computers so that they can get work done on weekends or holidays. Several of our clients have been sued for alleged “theft of trade secrets” for doing so, and failing to “return” those documents after resigning to work for a competing company. To protect yourself, (a) request written (email) approval from your supervisor before you send documents home, (b) mention in your request that you will delete these files from your home computer as soon as is feasible, and then, (c) do so. This “prior written approval” and “approved removal process” should protect you in this regard.

11. “Reply All” = Double Danger: To the extent any of the above “risky email behaviors” pose a risk to your interests, then the “Reply All” button doubles that danger, at the very least. It’s happened to me several times: most of the email distribution list should get my response, but not all. Treat “Reply All” especially carefully.

12. Do Not Let Your Company Name Be Identified Through Your “Public” Emails: Recently, a client lost a great job at a fashion magazine after the name of his employer was identified by an email he sent to a fashion-related blog. The employer fired him for “cause,” claiming that his emailed views on the fashion blog seemed to be the company’s views. This problem could arise, too, in messages sent to such social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter. In the “internet” age anything said using your employer’s name – or an email address from which your employer can be identified – can and probably will cause damage to you.

Each of these “Dozen Digital Disasters” represents a potential risk in your day at work. Sensitivity to them, and good judgment regarding them, will substantially reduce your chances of “digital disaster” at work. Your hard work, good relations and hard-won reputation are all valuable assets in moving forward in your career. Why take unnecessary chances? If risks can be reduced, they should be.

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SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. Negotiation of work and career issues requires that you think “out of the box,” and avoid risks at every point in your career. These ways to avoid the “dozen digital disasters” should serve as reminders to you about them. Now it’s up to you.

Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. Always be vigilant. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.

A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.

Please Note: This Newsletter is not legal advice, but only an effort to provide generalized information about important topics related to employment and the law. Legal advice can only be rendered after formal retention of counsel, and must take into account the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Those in need of legal advice, counsel or representation should retain competent legal counsel licensed to practice law in their locale.

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© 2010, Alan L. Sklover All Rights Reserved. Commercial Use Prohibited.