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.
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
Do you have an addition to this list? Send it to me.
Are 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!
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:
- You Have to Promise Not to Tell a Soul
- You're at lunch with one of your buddies, who's obviously upset. You ask why. "You have to promise not to tell a soul," is the response. You promise. And there the trouble begins.
- Non-Workplace Politics
- When we bring national or local political issues into the workplace — especially the divisive issues — we risk disrupting our relationships, our projects, and the company itself.
- Some Truths About Lies: Part II
- Knowing when someone else is lying doesn't make you a more ethical person, but it sure can be an advantage if you want to stay out of trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
- Some Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my personal collection.
- Extrasensory Deception: Part II
- In negotiating agreements, the partners who do the drafting have an ethical obligation not to exploit the advantages of the drafting role. Some drafters don't meet that standard.
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 October 14: Contextual Causes of Conflict: Part II
- Too often we assume that the causes of destructive conflict lie in the behavior or personalities of the people directly participating in the conflict. Here's Part II of an exploration of causes that lie elsewhere. Available here and by RSS on October 14.
- And on October 21: Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking. Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking. Available here and by RSS on October 21.
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