Understanding the Perils of E-Mail


May 16, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

There’s a new book out called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley, the deputy editorial page editor of The New York Times and editor of its Op-Ed page, and Will Schwalbe, the editor-in-chief of Hyperion, who is also my publisher and friend.

Send is a book that I highly recommend you buy for yourself – and for everyone in your company. I have been amazed at how many people in even the best companies don’t understand the power – and the consequences – of e-mail. Below are some questions and answers that may help you in your own e-mail future, courtesy of David and Will, who jointly supplied the answers – by e-mail of course!

One of the important points you make is that managers need to worry not just about their own e-mail but also that of their employees. Why? 

People seem to forget that e-mail is permanent and searchable and can be forwarded as easily to a thousand people as to just one. If people at the Justice Dept. can’t remember this – and it seems they can’t – then it’s a fair bet that people in your office can’t either. And the results can range from embarrassing to costly to disastrous. All the goodwill you’ve built up over years or decades can be destroyed with one bad e-mail from anyone in your organization.

What are some examples of the kind of disastrous e-mails employees send? 

We go through lots of them in the book. A simple e-mail from one person at your firm to someone at another company chatting about the price of one of your not-yet-released products could later appear to be evidence of price-fixing. That could cost your company a fortune. Or think about hiring issues. If you ask your staff to see if they know anyone looking for “entry-level” jobs but they send out an e-mail saying you are looking for a “young person,” you could later find yourself in the crosshairs of an age-discrimination suit.

If your employees are forwarding privileged and confidential information from your attorneys, then that information may no longer be privileged and confidential. And if they send copyrighted materials to each other using your office equipment, then your company could be liable for copyright infringement – and you could be in big trouble for not supervising them more carefully.

And, of course, if your staff is composing or forwarding offensive jokes to one another, you could rightly be disciplined or sued for allowing a hostile work environment. According to a survey by the American Management Assn. and the ePolicy Institute, 60% of e-mail users admit to having sent e-mail with adult content at work. In April, 2006, the U.S. Mint in Denver spent almost $9 million to settle claims of sexual harassment in a case that was based partly on raunchy e-mails.

You write about the “Deadly Sins” of e-mail. Can you talk about those? 

There’s the Vague E-Mail, which wastes valuable company time. When people aren’t specific about what they want, others spend hours trying to figure it out. If you can get your people to be even a little less vague, you will find your inbox has a lot fewer e-mails in it. And you will find you get a reputation for being an efficient manager.

Another example is the Insulting E-Mail, which can cost you a colleague or a customer. Are your people keeping their temper in check on e-mail or childishly indulging in flame wars at your company’s expense? They could also be losing you customers with the Too Casual E-Mail. To wit: “Hiya, CEO Dude – any news on that order we want ya to place?”

What’s the most surprising way that employees can get you into trouble with the e-mails they send? 

There’s a part of the book where we ask: “When is a question not just a question?” And we answer: “When it’s asked on e-mail.” Here’s an e-mail that was a smoking gun in a court case: “I am very uncomfortable with how these transaction were handled. What do you think I should do about it?”

Will has a friend who told us about the $5,000 e-mail. Whenever someone writes him an e-mail that says, “Do you think we should get a legal reading on this?” it costs the firm $5,000, because that’s the price of a legal read. And once someone poses the question on e-mail, the firm feels obligated to go through with one, whether justified or not. If they don’t, and there’s a problem later, that e-mail could be used as powerful evidence against them.

If your employees are sending you this kind of question and you aren’t taking appropriate action, it could land you in very hot water down the road. Of course employees have to communicate their legitimate concerns. This can often be done in person or by phone. In some cases, a brief discussion can solve a problem better than a potentially dangerous e-mail.

So how should companies respond to these dangers? 

Many companies train people not to send e-mails that are hateful and give instructions about e-mail retention policies. But few take the time to instruct all employees on the more subtle ways e-mail can trip people up. We wrote this book so it could be used as a total reference tool for employees at all levels – to show people the consequences of e-mailing badly and the benefits of doing it well.

We set out to give people specific strategies for composing great e-mails for every situation. And we tried to get people to think of every choice – not just language and tone, but choices we take for granted, like whom we put in the “To” line and what we put in the “Subject” line.

Another big issue that most companies don’t give guidance on is when e-mail shouldn’t be used – when a phone call or a meeting is better. People think just because you get an e-mail, it’s fine to reply by e-mail. But sometimes that’s the worst course.

This makes a lot of sense, for example, if you have a concern about a product the company is developing – you can personally share that concern with product developers. You may end up finding your concern wasn’t justified. In this case, your need to know has been satisfied – and the company doesn’t have negative documentation that can be misunderstood later.

We believe that people want to e-mail well. Most of the people we know are getting and sending almost 200 e-mails a day, which translates to about 60,000 a year. Obviously, if we can e-mail a little better, then we can make a huge difference in our lives. Our holy grail is really this: e-mail that’s so effective that it cuts down on e-mail.