Emails for Ever
Emails for ever? That’s just the problem
Have you heard the one about the lawyer, his secretary and the £4 dry cleaning bill? Or the one about the sexually explicit email that became a ‘cause célèbre’ as it made its way around the world? Or the one about the two Australian secretaries and the ham sandwich? If you have, then it’s worth reminding yourself of the potential perils of putting things in writing. If you haven’t, you need to listen up, as these true stories all have a major bearing on how we use email at work.
So what are the stories?
The ketchup: The first concerns a London lawyer who asked his secretary via email to refund the £4 dry cleaning bill incurred after she had accidentally spilt tomato ketchup on his trousers. She copied her stinging reply to everyone on her floor and before long his request and her response were being read on the other side of the world.
The ham sandwich: In a similar spat, two staff members in a Sydney law firm had a very public argument over a ham sandwich, allegedly stolen from the office ‘fridge. Their exchanges were circulated round the firm and then beyond, resulting in the sacking of the two women and disciplinary action for other staff for passing on the emails.
The ego: Five years earlier, a solicitor at a City law firm couldn’t resist passing on, to a number of his friends, a sexually explicit email from his girlfriend, extolling his virtues as a lover. Within days, 10 million people around the world had read it.
I leave you to draw your own conclusions as to what goes on in law firms these days! In the meantime, read on…
Emails are public
This may be obvious but we don’t always act as though it’s true.
You may think that your private message to a colleague at work is just that - private. But how do you know? Can you really be sure? One click and it’s winging its way to someone else, or even several other people, possibly thousands of miles away.
Emails are not confidential and can be read by anyone with sufficient levels of expertise. Even deleted and ‘trashed’ messages can still be traced.
Don’t kid yourself
Just because it’s quick and easy, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your email as much thought as any other piece of writing. Remember the pitfalls of email, as you’re dashing off that risqué reply. Your writing is a record and as such can be circulated with or without your knowledge. When you’re sending email as a member of an organisation, this becomes particularly important, even if it is to just a colleague.
Do the following and you won’t go far wrong:
- Always ask yourself if an email is the most appropriate means of communication in this instance. For something complex, confidential or sensitive, a phone call might be better.
- Always regard your email as published information, bearing the same authority as any other communication to and from the organisation.
- Always take care not to create, inadvertently, a binding contract.
- Always think before you write, especially when you are feeling angry.
- Always be polite, no matter how strongly you may be feeling.
- Always write what you would be happy for the whole world to see, including mothers, lovers, brothers and others. And especially, of course…your lawyer!
And the moral of the story?
Whatever your ego says, hold the ketchup. As for the ham sandwich… it was never traced.
Learn from others' email mistakes and learn about effective email use.