The perils of email

The McBridegate story, which has had conservative bloggers jumping up and down with glee all weekend, is further proof that intelligent people often do some very stupid things, especially where emails are concerned.

A friend of mine works for a City firm and is often called in to sort out the mess when disciplinary or grievance issues get out of hand. As she said to me recently, it never ceases to amaze her how much dangerous stuff people put into emails. If anything, younger people, who are supposed to be more tech-savvy, are worse than their more cautious older colleagues.

Disgruntled employees facing disciplinary hearings or raising grievances have the right to a Subject Access Request. When a SAR is submitted, everything written on an employer’s computer systems about an employee must be disclosed. That includes emails.

As employment lawyers CM Murray point out in their Little Book of Employment Law:

The results of the request often cause significant embarrassment to employers and can provide enormous ammunition to employees with potential employment claims.

So anything you have written about someone on your team, even as a joke, could backfire on you. Jibes, gossip and questions about a person’s performance could be used against you. Comments like, “I see Colin’s tidied his desk again. Only a gay bloke would leave it so neat,” might sound innocuous until Colin pursues a claim for harassment and your email to your friend in the next cubicle becomes part of his lawyer’s bundle.

As my troubleshooter friend says:

Never, ever put anything in an email that you would not want to hear read out in court.

What might seem like innocent banter at the time can sound spiteful and malicious when read out in court or printed on the pages of a newspaper.

Alas, most people will not heed this advice and will continue to circulate gossip and silly comments on the company’s IT networks. Damian McBride won’t be the last clever person to ruin his career by email.

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One Response to The perils of email

  1. I came across this excellent post by accident after I’d already written something along similar lines, for teachers. Having read your perspective on this I have included a link to it from mine:
    http://terry-freedman.org.uk/artman/publish/article_1499.php

    Thanks for outlining the issue from a corporate/legal point of view, because I’m sure many people don’t appreciate the extent to which it’s foolhardy to say things online that you wouldn’t say offline. It’s important for teachers to understand this so they can pass it on to their students. I believe that such understanding is a very important aspect of digital literacy, which it would seem is something that many people in high places lack.

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