The following 10 phrases draw more attention to your surreptitious e-mail activity than they do to conceal it, and though they seem harmless, they could put your job and career in jeopardy, especially during this recession.
We’ve all done it: Dashed off an e-mail or instant message in which we shared with a co-worker confidential information about a layoff or bad quarter, trash-talked a boss or squawked about a
harebrained management decision.
Knowing we were typing something that we should have kept to ourselves, some of us might qualify our e-mail or IM with one of the following 10 statements, to underscore the sensitivity of the message and to cover our butts:
- “I could get into trouble for telling you this, but…”
- “Delete this e-mail immediately.”
- “I really shouldn’t put this in writing.”
- “Don’t tell So-and-So.” Or, “Don’t send this to So-and-So.”
- “She/He/They will never find out.”
- “We’re going to do this differently than normal.”
- “I don’t think I am supposed to know this, but…”
- “I don’t want to discuss this in e-mail. Please give me a call.”
- “Don’t ask. You don’t want to know.”
- “Is this actually legal?”
However, such efforts to circumscribe the sloppy e-mails and IMs we send are misguided, says Elizabeth Charnock, CEO of Cataphora, a provider of e-discovery software. In fact, the phrases listed above draw more attention to us and our surreptitious e-mail activity than they do to conceal it or to protect us, she says, because those are the very phrases investigators, compliance officers, lawyers and HR staffs use to identify bad corporate behavior. (Charnock developed the list of 10 things you should never write in an e-mail or IM, above, based on e-mails and documents her company has analyzed for clients.)
“Everybody uses e-mail in ways that are sloppy because it’s so easy and convenient,” says Charnock. “But it can cause trouble. Writing ‘Delete this e-mail immediately’ is a marker for some content that by your own definition shouldn’t be there.”
What kind of trouble can these statements get you into? Big trouble: You could get fired if your employer finds out you’ve shared confidential information over e-mail or IM, says Charnock. Even if you’ve just used your e-mail to share what you think is a funny forward or to let off some steam about a manager or co-worker, you could get canned for that too, adds Charnock, especially if someone else has filed a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim against you. Then, that “funny” e-mail you sent or the e-mail in which you let off some steam could be used as evidence against you.
In 2004, for example, PNC bank fired two women for forwarding seemingly innocuous joke e-mails over their company’s network.
“Most people think, ‘I’m not breaking laws. I’m not committing fraud or stealing from the company. I’m just doing what normal employees do, just bitching and moaning,'” says Charnock. “But if the compliance guy brings your manager into it, you can get fired right there.”
If an e-mail you send gets flagged by your company’s e-mail monitoring software, that might give your employer more reason to snoop through your virtual paper trail, says Charnock. “If a cop wants to follow you long enough, he’ll find a reason to give you a ticket,” she says.
And in the event your e-mails serve as evidence of criminal wrongdoing, well, then you can be brought up on criminal charges too, adds Charnock.
She expects that more companies will search through employees’ e-mail to help them decide who to keep and who to lay off during this recession.*
The moral of this story is not to avoid using the red flag phrases investigators use to identify suspicious e-mails and IMs; it’s to avoid sending those questionable messages in the first place. If you’re about to write an e-mail where you’re thinking of adding, “I shouldn’t put this in writing,” or “Delete this as soon as you read it,” you shouldn’t be sending that e-mail, says Charnock.
It’s just not worth risking your job, especially in this economy.
*I updated this story on December 2, 2008 by adding an eighth paragraph after the list.