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.” …

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

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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