Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins of Email

Ever write a funny email message about a colleague or something that's happening at work? Would it be as funny if it was being read aloud in a courtroom? Avoid missteps that could land you in trouble.
Have you ever written a funny -- maybe slightly cutting -- email 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?

Yah, probably not.

Thoughtlessly written emails, 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 email, or trying to make a joke at someone else's expense.

''Emails 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 emails... 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' emails 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 emails about how he looked on TV and how his clothes were. 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 emails 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 email 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 Email Trail -- Too many people, according to Rosenberg, still believe emails are inconsequential because they're not permanent. Deleted emails, however, can be recovered. ''The typical sender of email 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 Email for Personal Use -- Email 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 email 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 email 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 Email Would Appear in the Media -- Most emails are ''riddled with content never intended for newspapers or television'', Rosenberg notes in his paper on the Seven Deadly Sins. However, some emails 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 ahold of emails 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 emails. 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 email 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 email without closely examining the list of addresses is a risky thing to do. You might be accidentally sending an email about Jane Doe to Jane Doe. That can be more than embarrassing. It could cause legal issues.
  • Ignoring Incoming Email 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 email is not a viable option,'' warns Rosenberg. ''Moreover, it is usually inadvisable to solve this problem by forwarding the problematic email 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.''

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