Creative Leadership

When E-Mail Can Get You Into Trouble

I’ve often written about not letting email dominate your life, and how to keep it under control. But perhaps the most important thing relates to its potential for embarrassment. A few years ago, I was asked to be an expert witness for a court case for a major ministry, and although the case never went to court, the ministry attorney told me something I’ll never forget. He said that when most organizations have a legal battle, one of the first things to get subpoenaed are corporate e-mails.

Remember, that just because you delete it on your personal computer, most are still on the company server or your online e-mail service. So they’re not too difficult to acquire. He said that since we often view e-mail as a “personal” communication, we will say things casually that when made public, look pretty damaging. Many cases have been decided because embarrassing or damaging e-mails came to light.

With that in mind, here are a few really important rules to consider when it comes to e-mail:

1. Never say anything in an e-mail you wouldn’t want shouted from the housetops. Once you hit SEND, you have no control over where it goes and who reads it. It can be forwarded endlessly, so the person you think is reading it, may only be one of many. Anytime you write an e-mail, remember that anyone could end up reading it, so don’t be critical, negative, or slanderous of anyone.

2. Delete your e-mails on a regular basis. Even when you’re careful, e-mails can still be damaging. E-mail correspondence lacks nuance, emotion, and emphasis, so it’s difficult to know later exactly what you’re talking about. So even if you’re above board 100% of the time, a different person reading it might construe something entirely different. Don’t give people that option. Always check your company and legal policy first. (And remember that many companies today are monitoring employee e-mails.)

3. Personally, I need to keep certain e-mails related to business, client relationships, deadlines, etc. Sometimes, a client or vendor will misunderstand, or not remember something correctly, so it helps to keep certain e-mails for backup later. But be careful. Keep them in client folders, and keep them organized as much as possible. Those can be important as documentation on projects. But otherwise, I usually delete it.

4. Never tackle a really tough issue through an e-mail. As I mentioned, it lacks nuance and emotion, so it’s difficult to express meaning clearly. Especially critical issues like firing an employee or other major decisions – it’s always best to do it in person. I don’t even recommend you do the hard stuff on the phone. In person makes it clear and to the point.

5. Don’t feel like you have to answer all your e-mail. If you get unsolicited messages, there’s absolutely no law about returning them. When you get more stringent about responding to e-mails, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your volume of mail will drop.

6. Even if you’re not the culprit, you can get implicated just because of slanderous or sensitive e-mails other people send to you. Because depending on your response, it looks like you’re in on and approve of the conversation. So as Barney Fife used to say, “Nip it in the bud.” Whenever I ask my accountant, attorney, or real estate agent a sensitive question via e-mail, they always reply, “Call me and we’ll discuss.” They know that the phone or in person is a much better way to deal with sensitive issues. Let your associates and friends know that when it comes to criticism, negativity, or sensitivity, you’d prefer to communicate in a better format than e-mail.

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  1. Good advice, Phil.

    Email is an effective medium for transferring many types of information, depending on the sender and the recipient. But it many cases it is not the best medium, especially if negative emotions are even the slightest possibility.

    When there's trouble, a disagreement, or a misunderstanding… stop emailing and pick up the phone or get face to face. I've seen many people "hide" behind email to avoid a face to face confrontation. It's sickening to see someone get fired or demoted via email, be they an employee, contractor, or vendor.  That's chicken ka-ka.

    The same applies if you are trying to convey information that is critical and there is a chance you could be misunderstood. Speak human-to-human.

    And yes, attorneys like to say that the "E" in E-mail stands for "Evidence".

  2. This is absolutely good advice.

    I have a friend that is an independent IT guy for some pretty big people, and smaller organizations….  Smaller people-wise, but BIG on money.  One of his jobs is to keep an eye on communications for some of his clients.  Yeah.  People have been fired because of emails they have sent.  Even in small companies.  In large corporations, it happens fairly frequently.

    On a personal level, I have been working with my teenage daughter for a couple years now, regarding typed communication.  Text messages, emails, and EVEN chat.  Often we in the corporate world will be a bit more free with an instant messaging situation.  IM CERTAINLY has its place and saves a lot of time over email.  It is a GREAT tool for many reasons.  Here, it is not allowed to communicate major decisions, email is used for that because of the documentation trail it provides.  HOWEVER, if the person on the other side of an IM happens to save your communication that you thought would be informal and private.  IT CAN COME BACK TO HAUNT YOU.  This is a PR situation for your personal AND business life. 

    For instance if you were having an inverview with a reporter, you know you would say as few words as possible to get your point across, and you try not to leave pauses in your sentences – a couple of the things that make it harder to be mis-quoted.  However, when you write it, they can slice it.

    BE CAREFUL with ANY written communication.

  3. I can't tell you how important these tips are. Especially when it comes to your emotions on a subject. Body language, never translates into an email, and cross cultures communication can be a problem, when expressing emotion. I have had emails mis-interoperated several times with a very close friend of mine in England. Even though we know each other well, there have been times when communication has been missed because body language does not translates into an email. 

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