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

Email Ethics

by

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:

Denial
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.
Silence
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.
Forgery
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.
Masquerade
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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More articles on Ethics at Work:

BalletWorkplace Politics vs. Integrity
A reader wrote recently of wanting to learn "to effectively participate in office politics without compromising my integrity." It sometimes seems that those who succeed in workplace politics must know how to descend to the blackest depths, and still sleep at night. Must we abandon our integrity to participate in workplace politics?
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When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
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Deception at work probably wasn't invented at work. Most likely it is a continuation of deception in the rest of life. But the technologies of the modern workplace offer new opportunities to practice the art. Here's Part II of a handy guide for telephonic self-defense.

See also Ethics at Work, Effective Communication at Work, Conflict Management, Writing and Managing Email and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An actual bandwagon in a circus paradeComing July 6: Cognitive Biases and Influence: Part I
The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support. Available here and by RSS on July 6.
Prof. Jack Brehm, who developed the theory of psychological reactanceAnd on July 13: Cognitive Biases and Influence: Part II
Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive biases. Available here and by RSS on July 13.

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I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZhsVpgiDpqXCNOkmner@ChacefMkBkGTOCcxgLAKoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

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