We all know we have written or sent things we wish we could take back, or that were forwarded to unintended recipients. Examples of this happening to others are plentiful. Think of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hacking scandal (2014), which led to the studio’s co-chair, Amy Pascal, being fired. During the hack, personal emails from Pascal were recovered and posted online. I doubt she ever considered her private banter with colleagues would become public, but when it did, there was no way to reel the information back. And she didn’t have the ability to deny any of it.
The past few weeks have brought us some cautionary tales from the world of politics. Robert Mueller is looking at emails between those on the president’s team to determine whether anything improper happened during the 2016 campaign. Your memory may forget details, but what is written in email lasts forever. Media outlets and government investigators are all reviewing emails.
The problem? People forget that just because you delete something doesn’t mean it is gone forever. (And if pending litigation is expected, you should not delete emails or you could face claims of spoliation.) Also, sometimes, because of the distance between the sender and receiver, people say things in email they would never say in person.
Preventing an Email Error
What can you do to prevent an email error? Here are a couple of things to think about before you hit send:
1. Don’t say anything in email that you wouldn’t say in person.
Some people suggest you write that angry email, get it all out of your system and then not send it. Seems like a good idea in theory, but I have heard too many stories of people accidentally sending these emails after all. Ouch! If you need to get your thoughts out of your system, write them down on paper or, if that doesn’t work, type them up – but not in an email.
If you are not sure whether your reaction is too harsh, sleep on it. Or if time will not allow an overnight cooling-down period, at least step away from the computer and do something else. A change of task and clearing your head can give you a new perspective.
When we are talking to someone in person, we are able to read their body language to gauge their reaction. You can make sure the other person is understanding what you are saying. There is the opportunity for real-time questioning. You also may choose to edit your comments based on the feedback you are getting from the other person in your conversation – in person, we can self-edit.
Email is not the way to communicate emotions or concerns. Your words can too easily be misinterpreted. In emotional instances, pick up the phone.
2. Think about how the content of the email could be used (or misinterpreted) in the wrong hands.
- Abstain from false speech; do not tell lies or deceive.
- Do not slander others or speak in a way that could cause disharmony or enmity.
- Abstain from rude, impolite or abusive language.
- Do not indulge in idle talk or gossip.
3. If it is something truly confidential, pick up the phone.
An attorney I worked with once reminded me that nothing really confidential should be put in email. You can’t control the content after you send it, and if litigation is involved, everything in email is discoverable (excluding communications subject to attorney-client privilege in most circumstances).
4. Take the New York Times test.
Would you be comfortable seeing what you wrote on the front page of the newspaper? Once it leaves your outbox, you have NO CONTROL over what happens to the information. Warren Buffet tells his team, “Do nothing you would not be happy to have an unfriendly but intelligent reporter write about on the front page of a newspaper.”
5. Check your attachments.
We have all done it: sent an email that was supposed to have an attachment, but you forgot to include it. That is usually not terrible, but what if you sent the wrong attachment? Maybe a confidential internal memo? Or in my world, something to a reporter you shouldn’t have? Check your attachments every time before you send your email. I know I have caught myself before I sent something I shouldn’t have. I know someone who, when sending a headshot of a lawyer to a publication, clicked one file above where they should have and sent the wrong photo. The photo selected was one of a Caucasian lawyer, but the lawyer who was being featured was African American.
Do you have a funny (or not so funny) email story? Send me a note to share firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet me @MichelleMcCorm. I would love to give a follow-up with some of your real-life stories – with identities protected, of course.