THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Cyber-terrors: Five emails you should never send

Published February 13, 2003 in issue #0306 of The Hook.

BY PENELOPE TRUNK PENELOPE@PENELOPETRUNK.COM

How many more investment bankers need to show up in court before people stop incriminating themselves in writing? Email is one of the most convenient ways to be impetuously stupid, so if you are writing an email you wouldn't want your boss to read-- or the SEC, or your grandma-- then don't send it.

Assume that everything you write via email will appear in the business section of the newspaper. Compose your messages with care and pause before you send. Ask yourself, "Does this email make me look good?"

Obviously, if you are about to lie or cheat, do not send an email to document your lack of ethics, but there are some other, less obvious types of email which won't make you a felon, but they won't make you look good, either. So don't send them.

1. The "you're-a-screw-up" email

If you need to tell someone they did a bad job, do it in person so you can gauge their reaction. For example, if you open with "Your negligence on this project cost the department $2 million," and then the employee starts crying, you probably shouldn't continue in an extremely angry tone-- at least not until he composes himself. Another reason not to reprimand via email: people will leave this type of email in their in-box for weeks and weeks and reread it every time they want to resurrect their hate for you. Talking in person helps everyone to move past the conflict without sour residue.

2. The "I'm-a-screw-up" email

Do not document your weaknesses. If you must apologize for botching a project, do it in person so there's no email record of your mistake for people to forward around the office. The more documentation you leave, the more your mistake festers in people's minds. And, for God's sake, do not send a mass email to apologize. You will invariably announce your screw-up to people who would never have heard of it otherwise.

3. The bcc email

This email function is for people who are insecure, manipulative, and undermining of their co-workers. Even if you are this type of person, do not announce it to everyone by using the bcc function. Sure, only the people in the bcc line realize you're using it. But all those people will understand that you are not strong enough to let everyone know who's reading the email. If you feel compelled to use the bcc function, ask yourself why. Then get up off your chair, go deal with the problem face-to-face, and then go back to your desk to send a more honest email.

4. The joke email

Even if it's the funniest joke of all time (which I am sure it isn't) do not send it to your co-workers. Why make the announcement that you read spam during work hours? You should be working. You might think that telling a joke is a good way to establish rapport, but a spam joke is unoriginal and impersonal and does nothing to make you closer to co-workers who matter. Besides, if someone thinks the joke is stupid, she will think you are stupid for sending it.

5. The "Dear John" email

I am amazed at how many people break up via email, from the office. I realize that some people are such dirt bags that they don't deserve a nice breakup. I also realize that if you handle a breakup from your office, the pressures of work can distract you from the drama of your personal life. But I'm sure that there will be a website-- maybe a new section on Match.com-- for people to published breakup emails received. And your name will be mud in the dating world if you are known for sending breakup emails from work.

The bottom line is that sending an email is like getting dressed in the morning-- both are ways to manage the way people perceive you. The only difference is that if you have a terrible outfit, you can take it off and never wear it again. A terrible email propagates in cyberspace and will seem, to the original sender, to live forever.

Don't Send These 7 E-Mails From Work!

If you're not careful, your e-mail can get you fired.

Think that's a remote possibility? Think again. In 2003, 25 percent of all companies canned a worker just for violating the firm's e-mail policy. Most corporate policies regarding e-mail are fairly simple and straightforward and usually grounded in good old common sense.

PCWorld reporter Daniel Tynan has identified seven types of e-mail messages you should never send from work if you want to stay employed:

1. Sexually explicit messages
No matter how great your Saturday night date, don't recount the details in an e-mail to anyone if you're using your work address. Just as the date was personal, keep the details personal and use your personal e-mail address if you must brag.

2. Scam spam
We're all familiar with that message from a deposed citizen of an African nation who needs your urgent assistance so you can become a million dollars richer. No matter how humorous or tempting you may find the offer, do not forward it to friends or colleagues.

3. Pornographic photos
Dow Chemical, Hewlett-Packard,  The New York Times; Do you know what these three companies have in common? They have each fired employees for sending e-mails to their work buddies with Web site links to porn photos. Is your job and family's security worth that?

4. Messages denigrating the boss
Here's a fun fact of corporate life of which you may not be aware: Your company probably has a system in place to monitor your e-mail. Complain about the boss and chances are very high someone you really don't want to read your tirade will see it--your boss. Vent verbally. That's why there's a water cooler!

5. Jokes
Your colleagues may not share your sense of humor, especially when it comes to off-color, sexist, or racist jokes. True story: After Chevron employees passed around an e-mail titled "25 reasons why beer is better than women," four female employees sued the company for sexual harassment. The cost to Chevron: a whopping $2.2 million. Not much of a joke, after all.

6. Sensitive, personal information
Hey, bosses: When it comes time for your employees' quarterly and annual reviews, do it in person and not by e-mail. When you use e-mail to communicate an employee's performance evaluation, salary package, and Social Security number that can become part of the public record should the company be investigated or get involved in a legal action.

7. Messages urging someone to break the rules
Breaking the rules is unethical. Breaking the law is illegal. Either way, don't ever send an e-mail urging anyone in your company to do anything illegal, such as destroying files. Exhibit A: Investment banker Frank Quattrone, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for obstruction of justice when he sent an e-mail to Credit Suisse First Boston employees encouraging them to destroy evidence requested in an SEC investigation.