Don't send a $5,000 e-mail without thinking

As a general rule, I find "expert" advice on the "do's and don'ts" of e-mail to be tedious if not downright laughable: Virtually all of it boils down to being a grown-up, having common sense and understanding that e-mail is forever.

Every once in awhile, however, a nugget of genuine wisdom emerges from the mud.  I found one in this review on Yahoo by Marshall Goldsmith of a book entitled "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home," by David Shipley, deputy editorial page editor of The New York Times, and Will Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion. Here's the reviewer's question and author's answer:

What's the most surprising way that employees can get you into trouble with the e-mails they send?

There's a part of the book where we ask: "When is a question not just a question?" And we answer: "When it's asked on e-mail." Here's an e-mail that was a smoking gun in a court case: "I am very uncomfortable with how these transaction were handled. What do you think I should do about it?"

Will has a friend who told us about the $5,000 e-mail. Whenever someone writes him an e-mail that says, "Do you think we should get a legal reading on this?" it costs the firm $5,000, because that's the price of a legal read. And once someone poses the question on e-mail, the firm feels obligated to go through with one, whether justified or not. If they don't, and there's a problem later, that e-mail could be used as powerful evidence against them.

If your employees are sending you this kind of question and you aren't taking appropriate action, it could land you in very hot water down the road. Of course employees have to communicate their legitimate concerns. This can often be done in person or by phone. In some cases, a brief discussion can solve a problem better than a potentially dangerous e-mail.

I'll bet I have received exactly that inquiry -- Should we get this story  lawyered? -- from fellow editors and reporters a hundred times over the years (many pre-email) … and never once did I consider the implications of merely having addressed the question. Next time will be different.

There's a similar caution issued by libel experts to people in my line of work: Don't have a lot of written rules about things like notes retention and fact-checking procedures because once you have them on paper (or in e-mail) you'll be expected to have adhered to them should the topic come up in court.

My guess is that there is similar legal conventional wisdom in other industries that you might want to share with your underlings … over a cup of coffee or at lunch, anything but over e-mail.

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