E-mail is forever

By Elizabeth Danziger

If you follow the news, you already might have been regaled by the boastful comments of wunderkind Goldman Sachs trader Fabrice Tourre, whose e-mail was quoted on the front page of a recent Wall Street Journal: “The whole building is about to collapse anytime now ... Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab … standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created….”
 
Portions of the same e-mail also were excerpted in Time and have probably appeared elsewhere.
 
What can we learn from Tourre’s experience? I’m not going to address whether the Goldman trades were kosher or not; that’s not my specialty. But I do want to address the utter folly of writing e-mail messages that one would not want to read on the front page of a national newspaper.
 
Presumably, the morning fabulous Fab read his quote in the Journal was not one of the bright spots of his career. Ditto for the people who wrote the e-mail messages publicized in Climategate – or the authors of Toyota’s e-mail messages about their electronics problems.
 
Yet there they were, smart people all, writing e-mail that were subsequently either subpoenaed or otherwise dragged into the public arena, there to cause reactions ranging from mere chagrin to downright terror of being charged with criminal acts.
 
When to avoid e-mail
 
If your message is truly confidential, I implore you: Do not e-mail it. Think you’re protected by the thick slab of gobbledygook at the end of your e-mail stating that the contents are confidential? Think again. I don’t think that signature file text has slowed down the Department of Justice one bit.
 
If you are pondering an e-mail about something that should not be publicized because it borders on the unethical, there's a simple solution: Don't do the dubious deed.
 
If you are upset or angry, do not e-mail. Your message will become a permanent testament to your bad feelings or ill will, able to be forwarded or reviewed by anyone. It’s just not worth the momentary satisfaction you might get from saying, “There! I told him!”
 
If you are feeling boastful, do not e-mail. Gloating is bad form even in trivial cases, but it often is an outright invitation to disaster. Remember fabulous Fab the next time you want to brag; if you’re unwilling to see your words in the mass media, keep them to yourself.
 
E-mail is a wonderful business tool – but it is not for every communication. It’s quick, dependable, ubiquitous and oh so permanent. If you want to preserve a record of your messages or disseminate information widely, e-mail is ideal.
 
But if the thought of finding your e-mail plastered across the front page of the paper makes you queasy, consider your alternatives. You could make a phone call. You could send a fax. You could (gasp!) write a letter.
 
Or – here’s a quaint idea – you could say nothing at all.
 
This article originally appeared on WorkTalk.com.
 
About the author:
Elizabeth Danziger, author of Get to the Point! Painless Advice for Writing Memos, Letters, and Emails Your Colleagues and Clients Will Understand, 2nd edition, has been training business writers for 28 years. She offers continuing-education credit to CPAs through the Worktalk Core Writing Trainings. The trainings cover every element of good writing, including 10 key tips for effective e-mail. She can be reached at lizd@worktalk.com. Sign up for Writamins free writing tips at www.worktalk.com.
 
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