Monday Mornings with Madison


Email has become an indispensable part of business communication today.  Just how indispensable is it?  Ever seen what happens when email communication breaks down at work?  Frustration rises in equal proportion to the drop in productivity.  Indeed, much of our day-to-day communications occurs via email… and these emails are digitally encrypted in corporate hard drives and servers forever.

That corporate emails last forever is not news.  HR Directors, attorneys and general counsels have been preaching about the perils of corporate email since the advent of the world wide web.  Still, many people continue to use email without remembering that emails – unlike phone conversations – are written, permanent (even if you try to delete them) and can be subpoenaed. 

Indeed, top executives – brilliant enough to make fortunes for themselves and billions of dollars for investors – continue to doom themselves by putting in writing stuff they probably shouldn’t even be thinking.  Even now as Goldman Sachs executives, for example, defend themselves in front of a Senate subcommittee, one wonders why otherwise intelligent, competent executives document their often foolish and, at times, illegal actions in emails?  Federal lawmakers surely had a field day picking the juicy stuff out of nearly 20 million pages of emails and documents handed over by the premier banking firm.  Emails also figured prominently in other recent criminal investigations by the SEC and the NY Attorney General.  Likewise, during the Justice Department’s antitrust case against Microsoft, email records were used to show how Microsoft illegally leveraged Windows to win the Web browser war against then-dominant rival Netscape. Emails were even used to refute quite a bit of Bill Gates’ direct testimony.

With the Goldman Sachs debacle still fresh in our minds, perhaps now is a good time to review the rules for tact in work emails and keeping on the straight and narrow.  Included are general best practices to ensure your emails respect your company’s time, resources and integrity. 

Rule 1 – While it should go without saying, keep your actions on the right side of the law.

Rule 2 – Notwithstanding, remember that public perception is also a harsh judge.  That is the lesson not only for executive officers and directors, but everyone who lives and works in a nation governed by laws and influenced by the media. If you don’t want what you are writing plastered across the front page of the Wall Street Journal, then don’t put it in an email. Period.

Rule 3 – Email can be misdirected, even when you are careful. Always double-check your list of recipients. If you get someone else’s message, let the sender know.

Rule 4 – Don’t send attachments (e.g., Word, Excel files) unless the recipient wants it and expects it. It is much quicker to read text in an email than it is to open an attachment and read it there. Furthermore, the burden on the email system and network is substantially less for pure email versus email with attachments. Finally, not all users have the same types of computers or software. Using pure email makes it much more likely that the recipient will be able to read what you sent.

Rule 5 – Include a meaningful subject line with every email. Where someone receives many messages, it can be very confusing and frustrating not to be able to judge the subject matter correctly from its subject field. When you use the “reply” option, ensure that the subject field (usually filled in for you under those circumstances) still accurately reflects the content of your message.

Rule 6 – Beware of overusing carbon copies. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes, and determine if they really need to see this information. 

Rule 7 – Be even more careful of blind copying someone.  If that person then responds or jumps into the conversation, your efforts at subterfuge will be revealed.

Rule 8 – Don’t immediately respond to messages that make you angry. Email does not show subtleties of voice or body language, and the message may not mean what you think it means. Wait awhile, and determine if you might want to consider methods other than email for responding.

Rule 9 – Don’t give your userID or password to another person. System administrators that need to access your account for maintenance or to correct problems can do so without your password.

Rule 10 – Don’t forward someone else’s message without their permission. 

Rule 11 – Follow chain of command procedures for corresponding with superiors. For example, don’t send a complaint via email directly to the “top” just because you can. 

Rule 12 – Sending email from your company’s account is similar to sending a letter on company letterhead, so don’t say anything that might bring discredit or embarrassment to the firm.

In sum, realize that sending e-mail is not the same as talking to a person face to face.  Emails last forever and – as Goldman, Walmart, and many other corporate giants can attest – can be used against you and/or your company in a court of law, in the court of public opinion, or at the very least in the court of company politics.  When emailing, use discretion in what you say and to whom you say it. When it comes to email, make sure to use tact and common sense to make your point.

“Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” Isaac Newton

© 2010 – 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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