Software investigate

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.

About

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.

15 comments
kieranbuckley
kieranbuckley

then you might as well title the article "How to Get Away with Ripping Off the Public". You are basically recommending that company policy should be cover your tracks, especially if you are doing something underhanded. While I agree that there is a definite need for communications etiquette (as well as plain common sense), the Barclays' story is not the example to use to express your point. These were a bunch of self-serving, egotisitcal idiots who were more interested in manipulating the system and saw nothing wrong with that. They were proud of their "accomplishments". I'm glad they were too stupid to cover their tracks. I learned from my very first job that everything you do should be considered marketing for your company and represents how the company (and you personally) are perceived. Be professional, be polite and be forthcoming, even if the news is not what a customer or client wants to hear. While I agree with the premise of your article and certainly see the need for this type of education, I would have chosen a more suitable example to get that point across.

jon
jon

Words can be dangerous things in the wrong hands and we live in an world where language is becoming increasingly brusque and informal. That's rarely appropriate in business. I have a few points to make: 1. Don't write when you're angry. Nine times out of ten, if you receive an email that makes you furious, the worst thing you can possibly do is reply to it there and then. Give it a few minutes or hours and then you'll probably realise that the right response is to eat humble pie. When you eventually hit "reply", you will have to swallow your anger and indignation and tell yourself you are taking the higher ground by being conciliatory and compromising. It can leave a sour taste in the mouth sometimes, but you'll be the better person. 2. Don't make unrealistic claims in writing If you are telling someone how long a job is going to take or what it will cost, don't put your fanciful, ill-conceived proposals in writing. They really will come back to haunt you. Give yourself some leeway on price/timescales and the likely result is you'll improve on expectations. If you send an email promising the Earth, the chances are you will be held to account because you put that promise in writing. 3. Learn to write It's not too late - there are some great grammar-crammer courses for business people where you can become a better writer in a few hours just by learning some simple but important rules. Bad writing is off-putting to a lot of people and undermines your credibility. Sloppy language could be seen as a sign of sloppy workmanship or sub-par professionalism. 4. Be civil Start your email with "Dear [insert name], Thank you for your email" and end with "Kind regards" (or whatever you feel comfortable with in your line of work). Some people won't care, but those who do will notice that you are maintaining your standards of courtesy and professionalism in a text-speak world. 5. Re-read it before you send it Never, ever click that button until you have read the whole thing through, slowly and carefully. If it's more than a couple of paragraphs, there will probably be a mistake in there somewhere.

Cmd_Line_Dino
Cmd_Line_Dino

If your Exchange server is journaling e-mails then each e-mail is captured by the journaling system at the moment of send. Doing a recall in Outlook will not remove the copy in the journal archive.

jbenton
jbenton

...when you click send and realise that might not have been wise Write your text first and leave the address field blank. Those few seconds you spend between clicking send and having to go back and enter the email address are usually enough to make you think how the recipient (ie the whole world) MAY wrongly interpret your light-hearted banter (however witty and innocuous you think you are)

Dyalect
Dyalect

Once you click send thats it. Carefull.

g01d4
g01d4

Many times a formal policy can be too restrictive. Awhile back a colleague told me about the 60 Minutes rule which essentially states don't write anything you'd be embarrassed to see exposed on the 60 Minutes television program.

monica
monica

Hi, I very rarely disagree with any comments but this was exactly my point. Email is a picture of you and your business. The Libor emails painted exactly the picture of arrogance and egotism you describe. What example would you have used?

monica
monica

Hi Jon, What a pity they don't teach young people to 'learn to write' and 'be civil'. These seem to be lost arts and skills and emails highlights their lose.

monica
monica

Yes and no. By the time I see your request to 'recall' the email I have either opened it or now am so curious that I do open it. Far better to send the right message - right first time.

lars
lars

There are a number of circumstances in which message recall doesn't work. Message Recall will not be successful if: - The recipient is not using Outlook. - The message has been moved from the Inbox, i.e. if a rule moves all mail from Jane Doe to a subfolder. - The message has been read. This includes viewing the message with the Preview Pane so that the message is flagged as Read. Recall will only work if: - The recipient must be using the Outlook client. - The recipient's mailbox must be open for the recall to succeed. - The message must still be unread and in the recipient's Inbox. When the 'Recall message' is received in the recipients inbox, the recipient needs to either click on it to activate it or leave it until Outlook is idle, at which point recall messages are processed. This idle time is typically 60-500 seconds, although this can be changed.

danand77
danand77

Yes, MS Outlook has a recall feature. But, it will work only if the recipient hasn't opened the mail. Mails opened by the recipient cannot be recalled.

monica
monica

Also an excellent suggestion. See too my other way of putting all sent emails in a 2 minute holding box.

monica
monica

What a great idea. I usually suggest people write a rule to send all sent email to the draft box for 2 minutes before they are sent. This is an even better way.

monica
monica

Many thanks for a great technical update. I am more of a process and people person. Have often wondered how exactly the recall function works. That said I am not sure the recall feature is worthwhile as the damage has been done once you see that request, even if its a message to the wrong person.