Emailing at Work: Be Safe, Not Sorry

Email is both an asset and a liability, and nowhere is that more evident than in the workplace.

David Shipley and Will Schwalbe explore the perils of email in their new book, "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home." David Shipley is the deputy editorial page editor and op-ed page editor of The New York Times; Will Schwalbe serves as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books.

A Fortune Magazine article by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe offers guidelines for safe emailing:

The first step is knowing what investigators look for. The latest software doesn't just hunt for obviously hot words and phrases like "insider trading" or "Let's break the law tomorrow at 3:47." Cataphora, a company that helps lawyers mine data in cases where millions of e-mails need to be analyzed, uses software that searches for more subtle tendencies: language that seems intentionally vague ("that thing we talked about") and word combinations that indicate worry ("can't sleep," "confused and bewildered," "regret"). A smoking gun from an investigation involving corporate fraud in the software industry: "Can we talk about that thing we talked about the other day when we spoke about that other thing? When I was visiting you? It's quite urgent." ...

The further business gets from an industrial workplace, the more workers underestimate the dangers of technology, particularly e-mail. Imagine if there were a piece of machinery, one that made it easy for an employee not just to hurt himself but also to bring down an entire organization. Corporations would restrict its use to a few impeccably trained operators. That's not possible, of course, when it comes to e-mail. Its ease lulls us into being unaware of its danger - until we end up with ketchup on our trousers and egg on our faces.

Email can be just as dangerous for employers as it is for employees. According to a Seattle Times story:

... distance can also tempt messages better delivered more formally. Take Radio Shack's firing of 400 people via the following missive, noted in Shipley and Schwalbe's book: "The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated."

Sure. It is entirely possible that this little "Radio Shack" outfit did not realize that today's technology would allow such an e-mail to be forwarded for all the world to see. At any rate, e-mails can be so problematic that a whole field of law is brewing around the notion of "electronic discovery."

Edit Your Email

Email can be dangerous partly because it's super-accessible and (generally) super-fast. When we email, we're often multi-tasking, so it's unlikely we'll pause to consider the words on the screen.

As a journalist, I pay email the same respect I give my stories: I usually fact-check and edit emails, even those I send to family and friends. It is time-consuming, and, particularly in harried moments, maybe impossible. Yet any attempt to preserve the integrity of the written word is, I think, a step in the right direction.

If you take a minute or two to be a reasonably objective editor after you've composed an email, you may just find yourself tweaking and tucking--moves that could stave off embarrassment or even unemployment.

Any thoughts?

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