Beware the pitfalls of e-mail

Ah the wonders of electronic mail. We have all quickly grown so accustomed to using e-mail in our day-to-day business affairs that we wonder what we ever did before it came along. No longer must we play telephone tag to get an important message in front of another busy person. We can simply dash off an e-mail and a notice will pop up on the other person's computer screen whether he is in the middle of a meeting talking on the phone or drafting a memo. Life works smoother with e-mail.

Still e-mail is a mixed blessing. In fact I would like to post on all e-mail systems in inch-high letters an old Latin proverb: Verba volant scripta manent. It means: Spoken words fly away but written words stay on. In other words think twice before you fire off that passionate e-mail note because written messages can come back to haunt you.

A couple of cases in point:* In a federal agency in Washington D.C. not long ago two staff members began carrying on a love affair. They frequently expressed their affection in purple prose over the agency's e-mail system. The spouse of one of the staff members got suspicious and sued for alienation of affections. In the process of discovery the e-mail records of the two staff members were subpoenaed. The agency not only had the records but also had no good reason for saying no to the court so the two lovers' intimate sweet-nothings were exposed in court for all the world to see.* A supervisor in another agency told me he had spent an entire morning arbitrating between two angry staff members. One had volunteered via e-mail to punch out the other in a dispute over some work-related issue. The question quickly became not who was right with respect to the issue at hand but rather how one staff member had threatened physical violence in writing to the other. That's a serious no-no.

Here is a prudent rule of thumb: If you write anything in a fit of passion - be it anger joy lust avarice or whatever - put it away in your desk drawer for a day before you send it out. That gives you the opportunity to read your words a second time in tomorrow's cold light before you go ahead and make a damned fool of yourself.

With e-mail you are mistaken if you think your mindless maunderings simply vanish into the air.

Moreover your right to privacy of communications in the work place is highly circumscribed. As the examples suggest your agency or company may have a legal obligation to turn your e-mail messages over to a third party under some circumstances.

You also are mistaken if you think you can use your employer's e-mail system to commit a crime or violate someone's copyright - one of the most frequent abuses - and you may be exposing your employer to liability if you do so. Remember your employer can assert a claim to access and disclose your e-mail messages if the employer has good cause to think you are engaged in illegal or wrongful conduct.

Then there is the more mundane reason why your e-mail will not remain private: System administrators may need to look at message traffic in the course of routine system maintenance and security activities. They will need to protect against possibilities such as your unwittingly using e-mail to download virus-laden software.

On the other hand employees should be informed regularly that their e-mail messages will be monitored under certain circumstances. Arguably employees deserve to be told whenever management accesses their e-mail traffic. Certainly they have a right to know when employers disclose that traffic to third parties.

The downside to the many blessings of e-mail then is that thoughtless impulses can lead employees to use e-mail in ways that will embarrass themselves and their employers. The creation of good e-mail policies in agencies and companies will go a long way to help employees avoid the pitfalls of e-mail.Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Washington D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at [email protected] This column can be read on FCW's home page at


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