E-mails are like diamonds. They are forever

One would think, after all the years of email communication, another article on this topic would be redundant. However, as demonstrated by a recent Toronto Star article (U of T student to get apology for email, Jul 22, 2007) it is clear there is still cause for concern. The article reported that an individual had sent an email containing a potential racial epithet (street talk); causing a great deal of embarrassment (and possible legal implications) for both employee and employer.

Over the last 25 years, email has been part of conventional corporate communications. However, it has evolved from simply a replacement for formal business letters and memos into an alternative for more casual types of communication.

In part, this has been a cultural evolution. Some newer employees have grown up in an environment where email, text messaging, blogs and Facebook entries are the norm. In some cases these have become a preferred method of communication. As a result, these individuals have developed very casual approaches to emails.

As part of the new employee indoctrination process, employers must recognize the cultural imperatives of the employees and provide appropriate training and support for them. Some existing employees may also require training as it relates to email etiquette and the impact of written communication in a corporate environment.

In cases such as described in the Star article, there is at least some responsibility for the employer to create and disseminate an ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ for emails that includes guidelines for appropriate business ethics. Certainly, ‘street talk’ slang which is acceptable for one cultural group may easily be misconstrued by others as a racial slur or other unacceptable language.

It is up to every employer to work with their legal department in order to create a policy that will both support and protect employees and the organization. In many cases, companies have Acceptable Use Policies for web browsing and internet use. However, they may not have extended the policy to cover email content and privacy issues.

The power of email communication is underestimated and or overlooked, possibly resulting in legal issues and social embarrassment. It’s important to realize that emails are stored on company servers, on ISP servers and on local servers. Deleting an email does not remove them from the server. As well, once an email is sent, the recipient may purposefully, or accidentally, send it on to any destination.

Some basic principals when sending an email may include:

At the end of each email, it is wise to take a moment to ‘think before you send’ and ask the following questions:

1. Who is copied on this email?

2. There might it be forwarded?

3. Who may be included in a “reply all” response?

4. What are the implications of the content including the historical information in a ‘string’ of emails being read by someone else?

5. If this information ended up on the front page of a newspaper, what are the implications to the writer and the organization?

6. Is the content professional, ethical, accurate and defensible in court?

Having a privacy statement as a post script as part of the signature file, is a reasonable first step to protect the originator as well as the organization.

However, the use of acceptable business language in the composition of emails should become the norm for all communications; both personal and business related. By exercising due diligence in the form of strong policies and training programs, corporations can create an environment of ethical and professional behaviour in all communications, disregarding method of creation or distribution.

Note: The suggestion for this article occurred as a result of an internal team discussion where we were discussing with one of our senior consultants the fact that we had provided “Expert Witness” Advice during a court case to try to defend the source and content of an email that had been sent five years, yes, FIVE YEARS prior.

Bill Elliott is a director at the FOX GROUP Telecom Consulting.

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