Many people have been caught out by sending embarrassing e-mails to the wrong person. Ed Power reveals why we need to be careful what we write
E-mail is the letter you cannot burn, the loose words you will never be able to deny. A 'private' e-mail is a linguistic folly; such a thing simply doesn't exist. Ben Barnes, artistic director of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, recently discovered this when an angry dispatch landed him in trouble. Firing off an e-mail is like writing a postcard to the world, a postcard others may copy and pass on with impunity.
Once you have pressed that send button, predicting where your missive may end up is impossible. There's a tendency to regard e-mail as the web's answer to the phone call - informal and intimate. What it is, in fact, is a loud hailer for the electronic age - indiscreet and without subtlety.
The lesson, say experts, is that you should never commit to e-mail remarks you would not wish to see publicly attributed to you. While this may cut against the medium's informal grain, the harsh truth is that an ill-tempered e-mail might condemn you more than a loose tongue ever could.
"The advice that jumps to my mind is that you should never, ever send anything by e-mail that you wouldn't shout across a crowded room," says IT consultant Gary Lawlor. "I think people feel that e-mail is private, that it's only coming onto one person's screen - but that isn't the case."
Ben Barnes had to publicly distance himself from a mail in which he intimated to overseas confidantes that he was being scapegoated for the Abbey's recent financial difficulties.
But Barnes at least kept his job - unlike Patrick Smith, an on-the-up lawyer who accidentally sent a lewd e-mail to more than a dozen work colleagues.
Smith, who earned a hefty salary at City Of London law firm Clifford Chance, instead of mailing a pal at another law firm, forwarded his sordid itinerary for the weekend to 15 senior lawyers. The blooper earned comparisons with PR executive Claire Swire, whose enthusiastic description of certain intimate acts sent to her then boyfriend, Bradley Chait, circulated around the globe several years ago.
Since then a number of other executives have been brought low by e-mail. Three years ago Peter Chung, a high-flying executive with the Carlyle Group, was forced to resign when an e-mail he sent to friends declaring his intentions to go on a sex spree in Korea landed in inboxes on five continents. In a more recent case, City of London banker Trevor Luxton found himself a victim of e-mail Chinese whispers. He had foolishly regaled friends with a tale which involved him simultaneously enjoying a beer, a curry, "West Ham on the box" and the extremely close attentions of his ex-mate's girlfriend.
Proving nothing spreads quicker than unexpurgated filth, his lurid tale became a 15-minute web sensation. Recognising his career was in jeopardy (his fiancée wasn't much impressed either) Luxton insisted he hatched the story to impress his chums. Claiming a lurid fantasy life did no good, however; several days later he was forced to resign.
An e-mail gaffe also threatened to reduce the BBC sports department to a laughing stock. When the organisation announced it had hired Andy Gray and Jonathan Pierce as pundits, Graeme Reid-Davies, executive editor of BBC sports news, celebrated the signings by messaging Gordon Turnbull, head of BBC radio sport, an e-mail. "I think they're both crap," he wrote. But instead of sending the message to Turnbull alone, he forwarded it to all 500 BBC sports staff (including Gray and Pierce).
Reid-Davies attempted to retrieve some dignity by sending a second missive. In it he wrote: "Apologies - having just had a long chat with Gordon about the good news regarding Andy Gray and Jonathan Pearce, I sent a joke e-mail to him - and the rest of you. Just a private joke with the wrong keyboard key hit - sense of humour and all that. Happy Christmas."
Whether Gray or Pearce appreciated Reid-Davies's 'joke' remains a matter of conjecture.
"Stop and think and then think again," before pressing that send button, advises Gary Lawlor, who says dispatching an intemperate e-mail may be no less disastrous than mailing the wrong person. "In a way it's worse - at least in the second instance you can plead a genuine mistake."
E-mail allows us communicate with those further up the command chain with a freedom hither-too unimagined. The danger is that we can abuse this licence. "You'd think twice about storming into your manager's office and giving him a bollocking. But with e-mail you can do the exact equivalent and there's no fail-safe, no pause for thought," says Lawlor.
And it's not as though you can easily paper over a misjudged e-mail. A phone conversation between two people is easily denied. Incriminating letters may be burned, damning faxes shredded.
Yet deleting an e-mail is usually a fruitless gesture; something US Colonel Oliver North learned to his cost when sensitive communiqués he had purged from his PC were retrieved from fail-safe systems and used to implicate him in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Covering your trail is impossible if your foot prints are being duplicated every step of the way.
This is just as true for the average Irish white-collar worker as for rogue US military. Send an e-mail to anyone at work and it will probably be backed-up somewhere. Not necessarily because your employer is paranoid and thinks you sleaze around chat rooms all day, but because doing so is sensible business practice. It's a piece of corporate communication and the company may be required to hang on to it - for years.
However, employers are growing ever more paranoid about e-mail abuse. Largely, they are anxious to reduce 'cyber-slack' - the time workers waste surfing the net and e-mailing jokes to friends. But they are also concerned about employees who send or receive inappropriate and perhaps offensive comments damaging the company's image or leaving it legally exposed through the law of vicarious liability (under which an employer is broadly liable for litigious actions carried out using company equipment).
"There is a concern out there and the corporate community is beginning to closely monitor how e-mail is being used and to implement user policies," says John Mooney, of computer security consultants Renaissance.
Advances in filtering software make policing e-mails increasingly routine. The challenge today, says Mooney, is striking a balance between effective monitoring and ensuring a liberal work environment that avoids staff feeling as though they are toiling under the gaze of a big brother.
"Managers have a decision to make - do they want to block this stuff or do they try to manage the flow? There's a trade-off to be found."
So will security software and deepening intolerance of 'inappropriate' content suck all the fun out of e-mail. Only, says Gary Lawlor, if we let it.
"E-mail is a fantastic medium and most employers will give workers the benefit of the doubt. If we decide to use e-mail responsibly and take a little care when setting down our thoughts, there's no reason to worry unduly. E-mail is a tool, not a threat."