Stop. Think. Don't Send That Email!

I can’t resist. I have to share this. It’s about email. Don’t push send. It is from Bob Sutton: A Cautionary Tale: Watch the Email:

"It is unclear if Dr. Kone lost his job just because of the email, there were a lot of other things going on (he did seem to have overly close personal connections to the student he admitted and there are some hints from the news stories that he was breeding a climate of fear at the school). But I confess that, for me, this story had special resonance as I think I am most prone toward becoming temporary as***le on email, and have learned — the hard way — to keep censoring myself. An IT guy I know showed me that he has his email set-up so that it takes a full five minutes for his email to go out after he hits ‘send.’ I think I will go in and set that up.  Also, another part of this story we should all remember — many, or perhaps most, of our employers can go back and read the emails we send." (emphasis is mine.)

I very much second that motion. And I’ve learned this the hard way. There are several critical things to remember about email.

  1. Email isn’t private. Remember that, please. Never write in email something that you don’t want your coworkers, your boss, your spouse, or significant other to see. Sure, most of your emails end up private, but any email you send can become legal evidence and show up in the worst possible places. 
  2. The reader decides what you meant. The reader interprets. You don’t get to hide in nuance, or inflection, or soften it with a smile. The words as written remain forever. No hiding in vague memory, and not recalling. Forever.
  3. The reader owns it. Yes, I know, technically you can put disclaimers and legal notices all you like, but possession is possession, and the reader has your words in his or her email and can send it on as much as he or she likes.  It’s out in the world.
  4. You can’t unsend it. An appropriate cliche here could be – the cat is out of the bag. It’s out there. You can’t get it back. No do-overs. No Mulligans.

Conclusion? Yeah, I have a conclusion. I used to prefer email communication because it didn’t have to be in real time, and it’s easy to type. Nowadays I try to sort and select. Some messages are fine in email, but we have to recognize when it’s better to grab a phone and talk, or, even better yet, walk down the hall and talk.

Bob Sutton is the author of several really good books and teaches at Stanford University. His Bob Sutton – Work Matters blog is a good one.


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