Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins of Email

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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


”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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