Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins of E-mail

Tuesday Mar 21st 2006 by Sharon Gaudin
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Have you ever written a funny — maybe slightly cutting — e-mail about a colleague or business partner? You and your friends probably got a few laughs out of it.

Would it seem as funny if a lawyer was reading it aloud in the middle of a courtroom?

Yeah, probably not.

Thoughtlessly written e-mails, or instant messages, in the workplace can land people in serious trouble, says Eric Rosenberg, a 30-year litigator and president of LitigationProofing, LLC, a Mamaroneck, N.Y.-based consultancy that does employee training. And a lot of what gets people in trouble is either detailing their own misdeeds in an e-mail, or trying to make a joke at someone else's expense.

"E-mails can be dangerous," says Rosenberg, who recently devised a list of the Seven Deadly Sins of Electronic Communications. "You tend to lose your formality and thoughtfulness in e-mails. It's a fine means of setting up meetings but for substantive purposes, you have to be much more careful of what you're doing and you can't use it for a medium of entertainment in the office."

Sometimes people are writing these 'entertaining' e-mails at the worse possible times, he said in an exclusive interview with Datamation. And that just increases the temperature of the hot water they could land in.

"We have a tendency when we're faced with great tension to get some relief by writing about it in a way that's less than serious," says Rosenberg, pointing to former Federal Emergency Management chief Michael Brown writing about how his clothes looked on TV during the Hurricane Katrina disaster this past year. "The effect was that people were plainly suffering and maybe to release some nervous energy he exchanged some e-mails about how he looked on TV and how his clothes were," he said. "It made him look like he was insincere, like he couldn't deal with serious issues, and that all he was interested in was how he looked. It also made him look like he was wasting time when there was no time to waste."

There was a cry of outrage from politicians and citizens when Brown's e-mails were made public. He later resigned his post, just three days after losing his onsite command of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

"Everyone is at risk for creating writing that is in fact not truthful, or exaggerated or demeaning," adds Rosenberg, who notes that when he lectures or does training at different companies, he often asks workers questions that they can answer anonymously. More than half of them, he says, admit to sending jokes using company equipment and systems. Most, he says, have received pornographic materials at work, and some acknowledge forwarding them on to others.

Rosenberg says that while e-mail and instant messaging obviously are valuable business tools, inappropriately used, they can land employees and whole companies in a lot of trouble. Here are his tips for avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins of Electronic Communications:

Assuming 'Delete' Effectively Erases E-mail Trail — Too many people, according to Rosenberg, still believe e-mails are inconsequential because they're not permanent. Deleted e-mails, however, can be recovered. "The typical sender of e-mail would be surprised at how many copies are replicated at various steps in its transmission, and we all know that we have no control over the dissemination and replication of our writing once it is on its way to a recipient," writes Rosenberg.

Using Company E-mail for Personal Use — E-mail has become a popular tool for communicating with friends and family — even while at work. Unlike phone calls, Rosenberg points out, coworkers can't overhear what someone is putting in an e-mail and it doesn't send up red flags that work isn't actually being done. But there are problems with this, according to Rosenberg.

First off, personal usage of company e-mail fosters a carelessness with business correspondence, says Rosenberg. Grammar, spelling and punctuation tend to go out with window with familiarity. Secondly, jokes, cartoons and stream-of-consciousness type writing should not be put on a company's electronic letterhead or with a business signature. And lastly, complaints about co-workers or gossip about colleagues or company matters simply do not belong on the corporate network.

Not Considering How E-mail Would Appear in the Media — Most e-mails are "riddled with content never intended for newspapers or television", Rosenberg notes in his paper on the Seven Deadly Sins. However, some e-mails do end up in the media, much to the embarrassment of the person who wrote it, the person who received it and the companies they work for. The media can get a hold of e-mails through discovery in litigation, Freedom of Information Act requests, misaddressing, forwardings and hacking, he adds.

Exaggerating, Joking, Boasting and Losing your Temper — People need to remember that tone is not conveyed well in e-mails. Sometimes it's hard to tell if someone is joking without hearing the inflection in their voice — despite the use of smiley faces. "Any content that is not a true fact can be presented as supposed fact in litigation, leaving the writer with the difficult task of explaining why the exaggeration, sarcasm or boast was included only for attention-getting effect," writes Rosenberg. "Juries, judges and arbitrators have been known to give extra weight to content when it comes from e-mail because it is seen as an especially frank medium."

Failing to heed Copyright Laws — When a published item is saved electronically — like in a PDF file — you might think it's yours, Rosenberg notes. "The mere act of forwarding it, even internally within a company, could be a possible violation of copyright laws," he says. "Company librarians can acquire certain clearinghouse rights and should be consulted before distribution of protected intellectual property."

Failing to Double-Check Addresses — Sending or replying to an e-mail without closely examining the list of addresses is a risky thing to do. You might be accidentally sending an e-mail about Jane Doe to Jane Doe. That can be more than embarrassing. It could cause legal issues.

Ignoring Incoming E-mail that Requires Action — "With the increased emphasis on new laws, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, regarding accountability and problem elevation, taking no action with respect to a problematic incoming e-mail is not a viable option," warns Rosenberg. "Moreover, it is usually inadvisable to solve this problem by forwarding the problematic e-mail to someone else within the company. Typically, it's a much better idea to talk to inside or outside legal counsel about appropriate handling of the problem."

Adapted from itmanagement.earthWeb.com.

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