Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ethics of Email

Libel: A written, printed, oral, or pictorial statement that damages by defaming a person's character or reputation.
Slander: A false and malicious statement injurious to another person's reputation.

I had an eye appointment last night. I arrived a little early so started looking through the magazines. He had no interesting titles, so I picked up one of the medical trade journals he had on the table and thumbed through the headlines. I found some interesting headlines, probably because they were a bit techie, and realized that the medical profession is going through a learning-growth curve that engineering has been treading on for a while.

The article started out dealing with online security. For those not in the U.S., a directive has been issued to transfer to Electronic Medical Records (EMR). Basically, your personal medical records go in a national database and then you can go to any doctor anywhere in the States and they'll have your current, and complete, medical history. That's the theory, anyway. The issue comes in with hacking and security, privacy and HIPAA, as well as usual online netiquette. (Face it, we believe and forward more junk email than we ever did snail-mail chain letters.) As part of the netiquette, there was a bit of a comparison to online ethics as well, and how flame wars, heated arguments, and miscommunication often occur as we hurriedly send out that last email for the day, only to see a nasty reply in our email the next morning.

I attended an NSPE seminar on electronic safety. It covered topics on file transfer, proprietary information, and other measures to take to protect proprietary intellectual information. But no where in that seminar was anything on drafting a proper email and leaving out the emotion.
"Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts."

Email is used quite frequently between team members, coworkers, customers, and vendors. When a problem arises, emotions often rise to the surface as budget and schedule become critical. Pressure from management to meet the project metrics has everyone tense. What happens next, somebody on the team comes up with an idea. Someone else on the team thinks it is stupid and blatantly says so. A flame war has started. But it isn't just an argument between the two individuals, because each one is using the convenient "reply-to-all" button to make sure others hear the words of the idiot they're conversing with. In that case, I renamed the reply-to-all button the CYA button, because that's what it gets used for.

What we forget to realize is that each of those injurious and spiteful words we flame to the next party are often libel, especially when others hear of it directly. Not only that, but there is written proof of the act.

So take that extra minute and proof read your emails. Only reply to those who need the information contained within the text. Don't use reply to all to Cover Your Ass. If the email discussion has gotten that far, it's already too late. Call the person or go their desk. Face to face is the easiest way to resolve an electronic miscommunication.
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