E-mail is crucial in companies today. How well you can conduct business often depends on how fast and easy it is to communicate with customers and prospects. Unfortunately, it’s so easy to create an e-mail that you might not think about the consequences of sending one. Not thinking enough before you hit the send button can potentially lead to liability, loss of customers, and/or reputation.
To understand the potential liabilities inherent in e-mail, you need to recognize the social weaknesses in what are called the “three sins” of e-mail: casual, candid, and careless. People will put things into e-mail that they would never put into a written memo. E-mail (as well as tweets, blogs, and Facebook pages) feels like a more casual medium than a written memo. People tend to be more candid in an e-mail than they would in person or in writing. We’ve all seen the articles about sending the wrong text message or e-mail to your boss, or not paying attention to the carbon copy list when hitting “reply all.”
Also know that e-mail isn’t private. Since it can be written and sent with such little effort, many people think of it as temporary. But that e-mail that you sent last week has been saved in about five different places and could actually end up as evidence in court. Remember too that in most companies, the employer has a right to read and save any e-mail sent or received by an employee. An employee has no absolute “right to privacy” if they’re using company resources to read or send an e-mail.
What about privacy of e-mail communications? As one pundit put it, “E-mail is about as confidential as whispering at the White House.” The sense of privacy stems from the misperception that the lifespan of an e-mail is short, but e-mail never really disappears. It’s stored on your computer. It’s stored on your company’s e-mail server, on the recipient’s computer, and sometimes on computers in between. Your e-mail is also stored on backup tapes in several places. Even if the writer and the recipient both delete an e-mail, it can still be stored for years in other places, and it can be recovered from the desktop computers from which it was deleted.
Another misconception about e-mail is that it’s somehow encrypted when it leaves your office. It turns out that virtually all e-mail is sent across the Internet in clear text. It’s like sending a postcard, not a sealed letter.
What about tweets, blogging, and business/social network sites such as Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn? The same rules apply. Don’t be casual, candid, and careless on these sites. It doesn’t matter if you delete the information from your page. It’s stored somewhere. If you don’t believe me, go and check out The Wayback Machine. Tweets, Facebook postings, and rants on blogs all end up in archives on some computer somewhere. Your future employers may very well be able to see what you posted on your Web site when you were 16 years old and in a fit of teenage angst.
John C. Shovic is a partner at MiloCreek Consulting in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.