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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”