Workplace e-mail the new water cooler

March 2, 2009
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With more and more office correspondence being done via e-mail, communication has become much more casual, which, unfortunately, can lead to incriminating messages.

“The proliferation of e-mail in the workplace in general has created real difficulties for companies because it has effectively replaced a lot of other communications where people might have been a little more careful,” said Andrea Bernard, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd.

“People don’t send letters very often anymore. There is something about signing your name at the bottom of a letter that makes a person be more cautious. E-mails have effectively replaced internal memos within a company; they have effectively replaced phone messages, and in a lot of ways they have effectively replaced the office water cooler.”

Bernard continued: “The kinds of casual conversations that people might otherwise have — a lot of that is now happening in e-mail in ways that can linger a lot longer, and therefore create risk for a company that otherwise might not have that risk if it was a conversation that happened around the watercooler.

“It’s the double-whammy of being informal and permanent.”

Bernard said the only way to eliminate the risk of troublesome e-mails is to eliminate them all together, but stressed that would also cripple a business. There are, however, ways a company can minimize risk.

One way a company can instill a good e-mail management policy consists of having a written policy with guidelines and an unwritten policy of good common sense.

“Employers should have e-mail policies that have a number of important provisions in them, but that cannot be the substitute for good common sense and good management practices.”

Bernard added that the common sense element is more difficult to manage, but can hopefully be influenced by management setting a good example and being vigilant about the types of e-mail traffic that are present.

“I do a lot of construction work, so when I say having a manager who is vigilant, I mean having a project manager being vigilant about his or her subordinates using good e-mail practices themselves, when they send messages to him directly or when they copy him or her on messages they may be sending to someone else in the company,” said Bernard.

“So if, as a manager, you see a subordinate who is sending an e-mail that is problematic or who has a practice of sending e-mails that are problematic, you have to be prepared to go in there and talk to them about it in the same way you would confront them if they stole 50 bucks out of petty cash.”

Bernard listed a few “don’ts” for e-mails: Don’t put qualitative assessments in an e-mail; don’t point fingers; don’t get into e-mail fights; and don’t copy or forward with abandon.

“The way I try to explain that to people is to narrow your audience. If there is an issue that needs to be addressed, it doesn’t have to be broadcast to the whole world; narrow your audience to people who are on a need-to-know basis,” said Bernard.

“When I send e-mails to people, I will very often put on them, ‘Attorney-client privilege: Do not forward without permission,’ because people don’t think, and all of a sudden my communications are being shared externally.”

While sometimes sending messages to every Tom, Dick and Sally happens on purpose, Bernard said, it happens just as often by accident.

“When you think about the ‘reply-all’ button — we’ve all been burned by that once or twice,” she said.

Bernard said the best type of medicine, of course, is preventive medicine: Training managers and employees on the do’s and don’ts of e-mailing, along with a strong electronic document retention and management system, can save a company in the long haul.

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