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The Golden Rule of E-mail

March 27, 2013
The Golden Rule of E-mail

I’ve been using e-mail since the late ’80s, which, I realize, makes me a dinosaur to anyone under the age of twenty-five. In that time, I’ve learned — often the hard way — what to say and what not to say within the confines of corporate e-mail. Whenever I’m training younger people who are new to the corporate world, I always make a point of driving home a very simple point, one that I call the Golden Rule of E-Mail:

Don’t write anything in e-mail that may come back and bite you at some point in the future.

Or, in plain speak — don’t say shit in e-mail that you wouldn’t want your mother to read, or, what you don’t want the outside world to read.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but really, at the end of the day, don’t write anything, even in a joking way, that will be misconstrued in the future. I am repeatedly astonished by the sort of things that show up in e-mails.

This is especially true in a law firm environment, where any and all e-mail can be subject to subpoenas at any given time due to litigation against the firm. Law firms are always being sued by someone, and as such, you would think that the very people who are the cause for such law suits might know better and be very circumspect about what they’re saying.

You would think.

This is probably common sense to many of you who read this blog, but on the off-chance someone is swinging by here who’s new to the corporate world and its sometimes Machiavellian intrigues, let me just repeat the main point here:

Don’t write anything in e-mail that may come back and bite you at some point in the future.

Work e-mail is not Facebook or Twitter. Hell, it’s not your personal e-mail – you can’t just say whatever springs to mind. You need to learn — and quickly — that there are unspoken protocols you must follow. Unfortunately, you will accidentally hit Send at some point on an e-mail you probably shouldn’t have even started writing. We’ve all been there. It can go many ways when you do, both forgiving and not, so it’s best to get into the habit of simply keeping to the business at hand when writing e-mail.

Yes, e-mail can be a way that colleagues bond with one another — you can say things there you may not say publicly, but really, don’t do it. It’s not your e-mail. It’s your company’s — they own it, and reserve the right to read it at any time. And if you work in a business that has high exposure in the outside world, you need to be absolutely sure your e-mail is inscrutable. My firm receives about ten million e-mails a month, and generates about the same amount. What are the odds that one in ten million will be picked up on, you might ask?

I’d bet those odds every time and retire tomorrow on my winnings. Modern e-discovery software is designed to explore e-mail that is subpoenaed and pick up on any phrase entered into it. You should also be aware that just because you deleted that e-mail doesn’t mean it’s good and gone — it isn’t. It’s still on the servers, being kept for just the reasons mentioned above.

E-mail is a powerful tool which has, unfortunately, devolved in how it’s used over the years. I’ve been fighting the good fight for the past decade or so, trying to restore civility to it. In the past, it was treated like genuine correspondence, but somehow, over time, people began to say things in it that were really inappropriate, both professionally and personally. A layer of rudeness appeared, probably around the late ’90s that has simply grown and made e-mail something many people dread.

Do yourself a favor, and help start restoring that lost civility. Be concise, and be polite. You’d be surprised how others may pick up on it and begin walking the walk, too. Become an evangelist for e-mail etiquette.  As a trainer, when I’m in front of a group of people new to the workforce, I make a point of spending time going over this.

If you want to spend an hour or two reading a highly informative book on e-mail etiquette, I strongly recommend The Hamster Revolution, by Mike Song. He goes into great detail, using a bit of humor, on how to regain control of your e-mail. I’ve been doing most of what he talks about in the book for twenty years, but it’s good to see things put into perspective. His ideas about folder structure and maintenance alone are worth the read and gave me even more ideas I’ve since implemented in my own work e-mail. I guarantee everyone will get something out of the book.

Be smart in your work e-mail.


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