The ABA Journal published an article about things you should never put in an e-mail. As usual, the article spawned a lot of interesting comments and I was more fascinated with a couple of them than with the story itself.
First, many people couldn’t understand how a rational person – who would never write the same thing in an actual letter – would do so in an e-mail. Second, a few lambasted the authors for providing a method to “evade the law”. Third, and I admit I’ve used this example, it was suggested that one should never send an e-mail that they wouldn’t want their mother to see. Based on some of the expletive-laced e-mails I’ve received in my career, I sure wish the senders had run them by their mothers…
There’s a reason we have anti-theft devices for our homes and cars. They’re preventative measures. Not only are they a hindrance, but in some instances, they give people time to think about what they’re doing.
If we really want to address where the process breaks down, there’s only one place to look; time. Time to reflect. Time to calm down. Time to reason. In the olden days, someone had to take care to craft a letter. They had to address the envelope. They had to put a stamp on it. Then, they probably had to walk or drive somewhere to put it into a mailbox. Now, all we have to do is type our stream of consciousness as quickly as we can – limited only by how many wpm we can produce – then press SEND.
I type 70wpm. If only someone would invent the anti-send device…
We’re victims of ease and efficiency. Here’s my scientific view. The easier something is – and by default, the more efficient it is – is directly proportional to our ability to screw it up! We’re under so much time pressure and it’s so easy to use, do we really need to proof-read or check for content? Nah, just send it now and worry about following-up later.
I also take issue with the attitude that giving someone essentially what amounts to an e-mail ‘Dos & Don’ts’ list is somehow equivalent to assisting in the commission of dishonest or illegal acts. That’s quite a leap.
Whenever a discussion takes place, some may use the information gleaned from it for nefarious purposes. Does that end the debate? Teaching a class how to properly use a gun doesn’t automatically make them murderers (although, if you had reason to know that one of them might become one, that’s a different story).
There are many legitimate, legal and appropriate reasons to include details in e-mails and conversely, to leave them out. For example, if you were seeking advice from your attorney, privilege would attach. What difference should it make if it’s a face-to-face conversation or by email?
Unfortunately, it does make a difference.
It’s fine that you addressed confidential information to exactly the
right person. The problem is that email can be intercepted and/or forwarded, with dire consequences.
Companies have e-mail policies for this very reason. People will always put stupid, embarrassing or inappropriate things in messages; we don’t need to address that here. The open question is, when does an e-mail cross the threshold from being simply inappropriate to becoming actionable.
A little more thought before you hit the send button may help you avoid a different threshold; the threshold of pain.