The Dangers of Inappropriate Emails

While it might seem obvious, sending inappropriate emails in the workplace can be extremely damaging. What may seem amusing in the moment, might not be as funny when it is read back to you in a disciplinary hearing.

It was recently reported that the firm Guy Carpenter is investigating a ‘totally unacceptable’ sexist ‘joke’ sent in an email in which all colleagues in the department were copied in and a female colleague was singled out. A senior vice-president at the firm, James Conmy, and a colleague has been suspended, pending investigation.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Guy Carpenter has said that the organisation "take all incidents of harassment very seriously and will not tolerate any behaviour that breaches our code of conduct”.

“Those involved in sending and externally disseminating this email have been suspended from the firm pending further investigation.”

As this case shows, supposedly humorous emails, particularly where multiple parties are copied in, are highly risky. Singling out individuals could be seen as bullying and harassment, even if the sender feels their message is light-hearted.

Sending jokes via email is best avoided. That might sound uptight to some, but remember that humour is subjective. What one person finds funny, another may not – worse, they might find it offensive.

It is hard to gauge someone’s intended tone from what they have written in an email, so email is perhaps not the best vehicle for jokes. An email lacks that personal touch which means that words can be misinterpreted and the tone of a conversation miscalculated.  

The Guy Carpenter case is a clear example of where a ‘joke’ has been seriously misjudged; it was described by the victim as ‘extremely rude and offensive’.

You cannot assume, either, that what you have written in an email won’t be forwarded on beyond its intended recipient. You may send it to one person, rather than many, but this doesn’t mean that they are the only person that will see it. And once it’s been sent, it’s out there – you have no control who may end up reading it or how they will interpret it.

Emails can be deleted, but they are not gone forever. Messages written years ago can come back to haunt you, so it’s important to be conscious of what you say, how you present yourself and that, in work contexts at least, you are representing your organisation.

Email is an incredibly useful tool – it comes as second nature to most of us and is a big part of our working lives. But remember to treat it with caution. It does not seem an exaggeration, in light of this reported case, to say that its misuse can prove disastrous.

There are many traps you can fall into, whether it be copying in the wrong recipient, attaching the wrong file, or composing an unclear or ambiguous email that gets misinterpreted.

Often mistakes are rectified with a simple apology and do not have serious consequences, but this is not always the case.

Consider what might happen if you copy the wrong person into an email containing sensitive, highly confidential information. Similarly, what if you mistakenly attach the wrong file in an email to a client? This would constitute a data breach and could cause serious financial and reputational damage to your organisation.

Before you press ‘send’, pause and think – it can prevent a lot of stress further down the line.

About the author

Lisa joined RWA in 2014 as an e-Learning Assistant, designing training material for the Aviva Development Zone learning platform.

Her role as Professional Standards Manager involves the creation and review of e-learning content as well as providing proofreading, copywriting and standards support across the business.

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