by Rick Brenner
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.
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. Top Next Issue
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And 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:
- When 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.
- Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
- Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends. Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage. Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
- The Attributes of Political Opportunity: The Basics
- Opportunities come along even in tough times. But in tough times, it's especially important to distinguish between true opportunities and high-risk adventures. Here are some of the attributes of desirable political opportunities.
- On the Appearance of Impropriety
- Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean, what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- Some entries from my personal collection of useful and not-so-useful insights.
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
- Coming February 17: Conversation Despots
- Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics. Available here and by RSS on February 17.
- And on February 24: Allocating Airtime: Part I
- The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here? Available here and by RSS on February 24.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
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