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How an e-mail can get you fired

Thursday, February 7, 2008
Image: Snapper Media
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December 2007

Graham Brown outlines the do's and don'ts of e-mailing in the office.

Australians love e-mail. We boast more than 6.5 million Internet subscribers, of which more than 760,000 are businesses or government offices. But the flipside of such a love affair is it's easy to be complacent when hitting "send". Be careful, your message may just get you fired.

Such was the case at one top Sydney law firm, where two secretaries were sacked in 2005 following an e-mail exchange over a missing ham sandwich. The slanging match at Allens Arthur Robinson turned ugly, with one woman taunting the other about her love life. The exchange spread through the office before being copied to rival firms. In the end, Allens sacked the pair and several senior staff were disciplined.

With people's work and home lives now almost inseparable, modern business has to accept a certain amount of "me" time at work. But as bosses become increasingly paranoid about what information is going in and out of their office, there are a few rules to remember (see box below).

In general, it's a good idea not to send sensitive material via e-mail as you don't know where it may end up. Another problem is that an e-mail has no tone, so you can easily misread what is being said. Also, don't send adult material. It may seem funny at first to see those wobbly breasts, but not everyone will get the joke. And finally, don't say anything defamatory or personal about a co-worker in your message, particularly those higher up the food chain, even if everyone knows it's true.

IT knows what you did last summer
If living in the computer age has taught us anything, it's that everything we send is traceable. And before you say you're discreet, the IT department probably already knows what you are up to.

While you may be under the impression their level of expertise is limited to advice such as "try switching it off and switching it on again", those unshaven guys in T-shirts and trainers from IT know what you did last summer … and probably last night.

If they were so inclined (most companies set up a proxy server for this reason), they can track your whole day: who you've sent e-mail to, what dodgy websites you've been to, how long you've been updating your Facebook page and what songs you've downloaded to your iPod. There is some mutual understanding that they are doing much the same thing (and more) and it would be hypocritical of them to throw stones your way, but that doesn't stop their boss (and yours) doing it.

Is it legal for the boss to check your e-mail?
With most employment contracts, you are essentially handing over any rights to your employer of personal information stored on your work computer. And there's little in the law to protect you from your boss doing what they will with the data generated at work. While the Federal Privacy Act protects people against misuse of their personal information, there's a category of information called "employee records" which is exempt from that protection.

We have an e-mail policy?
Most companies would (or should) have a policy and saying you didn't know about it is no excuse. In their defence, business will say they only do it out of concern for theft of intellectual property, excessive Internet usage and protecting trade secrets, but it extends to your more personal Net habits, so be warned.

Can I get my potentially disastrous (but basically true) e-mail back?
Ever sent off an e-mail to an annoying co-worker after coming back from a birthday lunch at the pub, then sobering up enough to realise you shouldn't have sent it? There is one trick to getting it back. If both you and your co-worker are on Microsoft Outlook or on the same company server, try this:

Go to your Sent Items, double click on the e-mail; go to Actions, then to Recall This Message. Unfortunately, it only has a chance of working if they haven't opened it.

Do's and don'ts of e-mailing

Do:


  1. Make you e-mail short and to the point. It's should not read like a stream of consciousness; it's a business letter.
  2. Run Spell Check over it.
  3. Use correct grammar.
  4. Install an anti-virus software program like McAfee Antivirus (www.mcafee.com) or Norton (www.symantec.com).
  5. State your purpose in the subject line or first line of the e-mail.
  6. Sit on your e-mail for a moment. We know it's instant but that doesn't mean you have to send it back instantly.
  7. Send your important messages between Tuesday and Thursday, not on Friday night or it'll get lost in the Monday morning delete-fest.
  8. Put your contact and company information in your signature at the bottom.
  9. Add a disclaimer.
  10. Answer all questions to pre-empt further questions.

Don't:


  1. Put confidential information in your e-mail. If you wouldn't want to hear it read out in court, don't send it.
  2. Send adult material.
  3. Say anything defamatory.
  4. Be personal. For example, she may not know she is pregnant, so suggesting she looks it is not helpful to her.
  5. Put "Urgent" flags on everything.
  6. Type in capital letters. It's the e-mail equivalent of SHOUTING.
  7. Forward virus hoaxes and chain letters.
  8. Make personal threats.
  9. Send or forward jokes thinking that everyone will find them as amusing as you.
  10. Send huge attachments.
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