Occasionally, some of the more simple lessons in life bear repeating. As children, we were reminded: Think, before you say something you might regret. Ignoring this same advice in the business world can lead to embarrassing and potentially dire consequences, sometimes in the form of litigation. The problem is magnified by the fact that our everyday “conversations” with co-workers, colleagues, and clients are often sent by e-mail. Consequently, our conversations are “recorded.”
The prevalence of email is understandable. The demands of the business world require fast and definitive actions in order to succeed. Combine those demands with the availability of a technology that encourages concise, quick communications and a recipe is created for statements that are often ill-timed, ill-planned, and ill-received. Unless we are careful, e-mail eliminates one of the filters on our workplace judgment.
Some companies have learned this lesson the hard way, after potentially damaging e-mails are discovered and turned over in a criminal investigation or civil lawsuit. In order to avoid falling into a precarious position, certain fundamental rules should be followed regarding e-mails in the workplace:
Mark certain e-mails confidential. E-mails to and from an attorney should be clearly delineated as a privileged and confidential communication.
Practice the lost art of drafting. For all of the benefits that e-mail brings, the technology sometimes eliminates the “drafting” process for business communications. Whether to a client or colleague, recognize that the e-mail you are sending is simply a letter that is received more rapidly than one sent through the United States Postal Service or your office courier. Keep that fact in mind as you draft e-mail communications. Before you hit “send,” think about how the e-mail will look if it becomes evidence in a lawsuit.
Think before you type. Content is key. Your words count, even in an e-mail. Recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that settlement negotiations conducted over a series of e-mails constituted a valid settlement of the parties’ case, despite the fact that a final written agreement was never signed.(1) Make sure that your e-mail conveys a message with which you are comfortable, both now and in the future.
(1) Currituck Assoc. Residential Partnership v. Hollowell, 601 S.E. 2d 256 (N.C. App. Sept. 7, 2004)