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.