Email gaffes: Four ways to stop messages coming back to haunt you

Ill-judged emails can cost businesses more in reputational damage than in actual litigation. Yet most companies lack even an email policy for new joiners.

What you say in an email is in effect your e-dress code: it is a picture of you and your business. Photo: Shutterstock

How much did the Dude emails really cost Barclays Bank? On paper, there's the figure of £290m ($450m) in fines for manipulating the inter-bank lending rate (Libor). But on top of that tangible financial punishment lies the hidden cost of the reputational damage compounded by the traders' emails.

We may never know the true cost of the reputational damage to Barclays Bank. However, such email disasters are not new. I have examples going back over 10 years, yet still we don't learn that email communication can be permanent.

Even if you think you have destroyed the email, it will be archived somewhere by someone. Read any newsfeed and you will find at least one example each week.

I have written before about the hidden cost of poor email practice. Yet the emails from the Barclays Libor scandal have perhaps the highest profile of any recent email media disaster.

What you say in an email is in effect your e-dress code: it is a picture of you and your business. What image did these Dude emails create for Barclays customers, the business community and the wider public?

September is traditionally the new-joiners season with bright new graduates making the transition into the corporate workspace. What will you be telling your new joiners about how you want them to use email - and indeed any form of social media?

Do you have an email policy that, for example, lays down:

  • Words to use and words to avoid.
  • Style of language.
  • How to handle confidential information.
  • Greeting and sign-offs that are acceptable - and those that are not.
  • What action you will take if email is misused.

What proof will each new joiner provide to you and your business that they have both read and understood your e-communications policy? With no adequate proof you may find yourself and your company on the losing side of any legal action.

Having an adequate and robust email policy that seeks to minimise any reputational damage should not be confined to new joiners. In fact now might be a good time to reflect on and review your email policy - especially in the light of the recent Barclays Libor email debacle.

Here are four steps to minimise the risk to your organisation and especially through new joiners who often find it hard to differentiate between the casual tone used on social-media sites and the more formal and permanent nature of an email record.

  1. Benchmark your email current email policy for depth and breadth of coverage. You can try this free self-audit tool.
  2. Update your policy as necessary, especially ensuring it reflects the broader e-communications landscape, such as Twitter and Facebook and BYOD.
  3. Check that your acceptance procedure will stand up in court.
  4. Ensure that a session on email and social-media best practice is mandatory on any induction course.


Dr Monica Seeley is an international expert on email management and runs the Mesmo Consultancy. She is a visiting fellow at Cass Business School, City University, London, and has just written her third book, Brilliant Email, published by Pearson.

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