Wide World of Work: Office Danger: E-mail

(Originally published on Sunday, July 18, 2010)

By L.M. SIXEL

Being professional includes your email—and text messages. Beware; what you write may come back to haunt you professionally

Houston – If you’ve got an e-mail account at work, chances are you’ve watched the training videos, signed the pledges and heard the warnings about never sending anything you don’t want your mom to see.

But do we pay attention to the warnings? Apparently many of us do not and are stunned upon discovering—typically after a lawsuit has been filed or a complaint has been brought—that the e-mail we thought we deleted has a very long shelf life.

In the days before computers, people burned or ripped up the love notes they didn’t want anyone to see, said Steve Roppolo, an employment lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Houston.

But with today’s technology, it’s memorialized forever on computer servers.

And like other employment lawyers, Roppolo is continuously amazed that intelligent folks like Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal are caught sending potentially embarrassing e-mails to their secretaries or others.

“People don’t always think straight when love is in the air,” Roppolo said.

On the other hand, he said, Rosenthal’s references to wanting to kiss his secretary behind her ear are relatively innocent compared to what Roppolo normally encounters. And with this being a family newspaper, I’m not going there.

So why is it that normally rational people say things in e-mail that they shouldn’t?

For many folks, it feels a lot like a call. A few breezy comments and then hang up—or hit the send button. Who thinks much about it?

“It’s how we communicate,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based firm that counsels job seekers.

But unlike the federal and state laws governing the taping and eavesdropping of calls, electronic messages don’t have that same kind of privacy protection, he said. But people forget about that.

Challenger said that he was guilty of having private conversations over e-mail with friends and relatives that he wouldn’t want to ever be broadcast. But a steady stream of headlines—especially when the news broke three years ago about the then-Boeing Co. CEO’s affair with an employee and the steamy e-mails between them—has made him much more cautious.

Now Challenger pretends that someone in IT is reading every e-mail. That way, he won’t be embarrassed.

It’s not just e-mail these days that’s causing problems. Roppolo said he’s seeing more cases involving text messages.

“People think of them as throwaways,” he said. “They’re just as retrievable as e-mail.”

One recent case involved two female employees who received sexually suggestive text messages from a male supervisor.

The case was settled pretty quickly, said Roppolo, who was representing the employer. The messages—which were easily retrieved for evidence—bolstered the women’s case.

Helen Carroll, a human resources director for the Achilles Group, said she regularly reminds her employees and clients that whatever they put in an e-mail, they have to be comfortable with the possibility it could show up on the evening news or the newspaper.

Or the CEO’s in-box, said Carroll, whose firm serves as the personnel department for small and midsize companies from restaurants to accounting firms.

She recalled one instance in which a manager had sent an e-mail to a co-worker making fun of a subordinate with a negative racial comment. Unfortunately, the manager also accidentally sent a copy to the employee.

“There was no way to explain away the e-mail,” said Carroll, who said the manager was put on notice that if anything bad happened again, she’d be terminated.

The manager was shocked and tried to brush it off, Carroll recalled. However, it became apparent that she was so used to making fun of employees that she didn’t even think twice about putting her thoughts down in an e-mail.

“With e-mail, you have no control over where it goes,” Carroll said. They’re just so easy to pass on.

In an office environment, that gets played out when two managers are feuding. One gets frustrated, snaps out a response and hits the send button. The other manager then forwards the nasty e-mail to their boss as an example of the co-worker’s bad behavior.

People don’t see the receiver, so they’re often nastier in e-mail than they’d ever be in person or on the phone, Carroll said.

“I tell them it’s not a phone call,” Carroll said, recommending that they step away from the computer, calm down, and walk down the hall and sort it out.

“Don’t just hit send. You can’t take back the e-mail.” (NYT)

(All rights reserved. Copyright Manila Bulletin and The New York Times. May not be reproduced or copied without express written permission of the copyright holders.)

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Posted on July 18, 2010, in Wide World of Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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