Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 14;   April 6, 2005: Email Ethics

Email Ethics


Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.

The rules of civil society apply equally to all conduct, including that carried out with email. Whatever you would consider unethical in life is also unethical in email. For instance, if lying is unethical, so is lying in email.

Power poles after Hurricane Rita, 2005

Holly Beach, Louisiana, October 3, 2005: Power poles lean precipitously along Highway 27, which borders the Gulf of Mexico in lower Cameron Parish. Thousands of poles were either leaning or fallen due to Hurricane Rita's powerful winds. Although these are power poles, one can imagine the poles that carry the cables that make up the Internet, metaphorically drooping under the weight of all the email we send, much of it worthless. Photo by Win Henderson of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Somehow, though, it seems easier to cross the line in email than it does elsewhere in life. Your own values determine where the line is for you. To find your own line, try these on for size:

If you claim not to have read or received a message when you actually have, you're over the line.
Disclosing someone else's email address for harm
If you subscribe someone else to a newsletter, hoping to flood him or her with unwanted junk, you're over the line.
Abusive omission
If you intentionally omit someone from a To list for purposes of harm or harassment, you're over the line.
Misidentifying yourself
If you supply a false email address just to get someone out of your hair, you're over the line.
Faking a mishap
If it's unethical in real life,
it's unethical in email
If you broadcast an embarrassing message to cause harm to someone, intending later to claim that you sent it for FYI or by accident, you're over the line.
Dragging your feet
If you intentionally delay sending a message so as to deprive the recipient of time-critical opportunities or information, intending later to claim that you did in fact inform the recipient, you're over the line.
If you choose not to reply to someone so as to give offense, you're over the line. Even worse if you later claim that you did reply.
Misrepresenting a quote
If you excerpt a previous message, and alter it in any way other than to indicate deletions, you're over the line. Acceptable indications of deletion are replacement by ellipsis (…) or <snip>, or inserting short phrases in brackets for clarification.
Pleading false confusion
If you claim not to understand a message, when you actually do, so as to cause delay, you're over the line.
Intentional ambiguity
If you write a message ambiguously — to slow things down, to cause confusion, or to mislead — with the intention of later claiming, "Gee, I thought it was clear," you're over the line.
Wandering eyes
If you read other people's email without permission, either at their desks (whether or not they're present), or by any other means, you're over the line. Except, of course, if it's part of your job.
If you edit the headers in an excerpted or forwarded message so as to misrepresent the time, date, author, subject, or routing of the message, you're way over the line.
If you send email from another's account without permission, for the purpose of deceiving someone, pretending that you're the owner of the account, you're over the line.

Most of us have been tempted to cross the line now and then. Next time you feel the temptation, imagine how it would feel to receive such a message. No doubt, whether you know it or not, you already have. Go to top Top  Next issue: Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"  Next Issue

Do you have an addition to this list? Send it to me.

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Where There's Smoke There's EmailAnd if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!

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Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
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See also Ethics at Work, Effective Communication at Work, Conflict Management, Writing and Managing Email and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

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Here's Part II of a set of simple techniques to help virtual meeting facilitators enhance attendee engagement. Available here and by RSS on October 26.
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