Judging from some recently surfaced e-mails among Goldman Sachs mortgage traders, the "Send" button on anyone's e-mail program ought to come with a warning label. Since it doesn't - not yet, anyway - here is a handy guide to making sure your own messages won't torpedo your career a few years down the line.
The potential for toxic legal consequences from ill-considered e-mails isn't new. Just ask Henry Blodget, Jack Grubman or their former Wall Street employers. But today the stakes are higher than ever. The unbroken ascent of both technology and corporate record-keeping requirements gives lawmakers, regulators, private litigants and the news media ever more opportunity to seize and exploit remarks contained in employee e-mails.
Embarrassed by a series of communications in which its executives disparaged mortgage-related CDO deals the firm unloaded to its clients, Goldman recently ordered employees never to use profanity in electronic messaging. Monitoring software - a ubiquitous feature of banks' internal communications systems - reportedly has been tweaked to help enforce the clean-language policy.
Some 90 percent of all business messaging is conducted by e-mail, voice mail and instant messaging, according to Stratify, a provider of electronic discovery services for legal cases. Here are three strategies you can use to protect yourself and your employer, while ensuring that your e-mail gets read.
Just the Facts
To avoid confusion and scrutiny, provide the facts alone without divulging your opinion. Narativ, an organization that helps individuals and corporations tell personal stories, uses a proprietary methodology that includes saying exactly what happened as if you were looking through a video camera. "This is a useful tool in crafting e-mails because the message is clearer and there is no room for misinterpretation," says Murray Nossel, Narativ's co-founder and an Academy Award nominated filmmaker.
Stick to the Topic
Keep your e-mail messages concise and direct so they'll be read. Need to discuss several unrelated items with one colleague? Consider sending separate messages for each topic, with distinct headings and attachments. This makes it easier for others to process information. Separate your to-do list for discussion by line item and you'll make it easier for your colleagues to digest.
Know When to Take Conversations Offline
Some discussions are better held offline. "E-mail has become like a language, with its own inflections and meanings," says Nossel. "Words and the way words are organized in e-mails deliver not only content but also emotion. In oral communication you have the opportunity to adjust to the listening or the responses of the people as you are talking. In e-mail you can't do that."
Rely on your intuition and guidelines provided by your employer to determine when to go offline. If in doubt or the situation is complex, opt for a meeting. Wendy Finger, director of human resources at a wealth management firm, advises: "Don't use e-mail as a substitute for a conversation."