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April 6, 2005 Volume 5, Issue 14
 
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Email Ethics

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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.

Electronic MailboxSomehow, 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
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101 Tips for Writing and Managing EmailAre you so buried in email that you don't even have time to delete your spam? Do you miss important messages? So many of the problems we have with email are actually within our power to solve, if we just realize the consequences of our own actions. Read 101 Tips for Writing and Managing Email to learn how to make peace with your inbox. Order Now!
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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Related articles
More articles on Ethics at Work:
Mark Twain in 1907When You're Scared to Tell the Truth
In the project context, we need to know that whatever we're hearing from colleagues is the truth as they see it. Yet, sometimes we shade the truth, or omit important details. Here's a list of some of the advantages of telling the truth.

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When we make a difficult decision, we sometimes know we've made the wrong choice, even before the consequences become obvious. At other times, we can be absolutely certain that we've done right, even in the face of inadequate information. When we have these feelings, we're in touch with our inner wisdom. It's a powerful resource.

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When projects run over budget, managers face a temptation to use creative accounting to address the problem. The budget swap is one technique for making ends meet. It distorts organizational data, and it's just plain unethical.

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When organizations go astray ethically, and their misdeeds come to light, people feel shocked, as if they've been swept up by a tornado. But ethical storms do have warning signs. Can you recognize them?

A TSA Officer screening a passengerVirtual Termination with Real Respect
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.

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

Head of the philosopher Carneades (215-129 BCE)Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
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An egg sandwichAnd on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
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