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Perhaps the greatest mistake people make is assuming their e-mails, instant messages, and social media musings are private. (Getty Images)
Perhaps the greatest mistake people make is assuming their e-mails, instant messages, and social media musings are private. (Getty Images)

Human Resources

Stop before you hit 'reply all' Add to ...

They may make for great news items – and have members of the public laughing up their sleeves – but e-mail blunders are no joke. They can result in anything from a lawsuit to a search for a new job. Yet as sending and reading e-mail has become, according to a Nielsen Company poll last year, the main expender of mobile Internet time use among Americans, the gaffes and goofs can only flourish.

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It is the United Kingdom, however, that seems to have become the capital of e-mail mishaps – especially in the workplace. A 2007 survey by search engine Lycos estimated that 42 e-mail mistakes are made every minute in the U.K.

Another British survey, this one from 2010, found that one in 20 participants had either been fired or reprimanded at work for sending inappropriate messages. Almost a third of the 2,000 people surveyed admitted to inadvertently clicking on “reply all,” instead of just “reply,” while 13 per cent said they had accidentally sent an e-mail insulting a colleague – to the person they were insulting.

Some of the slip-ups have become so newsworthy that British journalist Chas Newkey-Burden actually decided to write a book about them, aptly entitled Great Email Disasters. Among the keyboard bunglers: A personnel manager who, when asked his reason for recommending a colleague for a raise, wrote, “She was a grrrrrreat shag as well,” losing both his job and a later claim for unfair dismissal as a consequence. Or the executive editor of BBC sports news who responded to the announcement of two new high-profile hirees with the opinion, “I think they’re both crap” and, once again, hit “reply all” in error.

“I always like to say that, sometimes, one person’s joke is another person’s libel suit,” said Annalise Coady, president of Highroad Communications in Toronto. Prior to Highroad, Ms. Coady worked for Baltimore Technologies, an e-mail content security firm. “While a lot of people are worried about viruses and things like that, for us, it was the content of the e-mail,” she said. “Basically, companies were getting sued because of what their employees were writing, and forwarding on as well.”

Perhaps the greatest mistake people make is assuming their e-mails, instant messages, and social media musings are private. They should revisit the story of Holly Leam-Taylor, a trainee analyst at a Deloitte office in London, England, who sent an e-mail to her female colleagues suggesting a contest for rating the men in the office, among them, the “boy most likely to sleep his way to the top.” The e-mail quickly went viral, and Ms. Leam-Taylor resigned – before she was pushed, say many.

More serious results have accrued to major firms like Microsoft and KPMG. E-mail messages both companies assumed would never see the light of day beyond a select few recipients became evidence in judicial cases they lost – and resulted in judgments costing them several millions of dollars.

What’s more, the large number of people seemingly ineluctably drawn to the “reply all” tab may be one reason so many inboxes are bulging – and annoying their recipients.

“Including a CC on every conceivable person in a company, and always hitting ‘reply all’ – those are my biggest pet peeves,” said Amanda Laird, a Toronto communications consultant.

“Another one,” she added, “is abusing the high priority status.” Some people use it so often that Ms. Laird no longer pays attention to their messages. “Use that red exclamation mark sparingly,” she suggested. “If you’re sending high priority e-mails, and people aren’t treating them as high priority, you might want to evaluate how often you’re using that function.”

Both she and Ms. Coady also believe e-mail writers should consider – and then reconsider – the length of their missives. The simple fact that so many people now check their e-mail on some kind of mobile device should indicate that getting to the point quickly is the optimal way to go. On mobile devices, “people tend to look at the top couple of lines,” said Ms. Coady. “So if you’re communicating via e-mail, make sure you’re keeping it exceptionally concise.”

“I also think that people often make their e-mails too long,” said Ms. Laird. “I’m sure there are people out there who will say even 500 words is too long for an e-mail – but there’s got to be a point where maybe you should just get up and go and have a conversation.”

While senders of e-mails can try to follow all the well-known rules about not using capital letters exclusively, and scrupulously checking their spelling – especially of the name of the person to whom they are writing – companies may need to think about setting out some rules about content as well.

“In any size of business,” said Ms. Coady, “it’s imperative that you have an e-mail policy, setting out what you believe is the right kind of behaviour. I always tell people, ‘if you think it might be taken badly, don’t put it in an e-mail.’ That’s very key, especially in a small and medium-sized company where things are maybe a little more relaxed.”

Using a network security company, such as Barbedwire Minesweeper or Fortinet, will help block the kind of content that can expose an organization to criminal or civil liability. A simple disclaimer automatically inserted at the bottom of every message going out is another way companies have got round e-mail gaffes.

In the end, however, said Ms. Coady, success in business is often based on building up a personal network. “And a lot of that,” she added, “is done in face-to-face meetings or picking up the phone and actually taking the time to provide the context of why you’re asking somebody to do a piece of work, or provide research, then using the e-mail as a follow up, as the clarification.”

This article was amended on Friday, Oct. 21 for clarification purposes.

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