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Email Ethics

March 10, 2014

Matthew Goldstein of the New York Times tells us the story of the demise and “fall from grace into fraud” of the once prestigious law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf.  In his article, 4 Accused in Law Firm Fraud Ignored a Maxim: Don’t Email, Mr. Goldstein writes: “Four men, who were charged by New York prosecutors on Thursday with orchestrating a nearly four-year scheme to manipulate the firm’s books to keep it afloat during the financial crisis, talked openly in emails about “fake income,” accounting tricks” and their ability to fool the firms’ “clueless auditor.”

All four men deny the charges. The incriminating emails will certainly not help their legal case.

The story has very little to do about ethics and very much to do about the alleged crime of hiding from investors, creditors and auditors the true dire financial situation of the firm.  

From an ethical point of view, the issue is not what you say or refrain from saying on emails but rather what you do.  This applies to all form of communications.

The recent progress we have made in communication technology has been extraordinary. However, society has not been able to keep up with it from a legislative and ethical aspect. Paul Soukup, S.J. of Santa Clara University confirms this when he writes in his article Do New Media Require New Morality? “The recent history of communication technology in the United States shows legal and ethical thinking lagging behind innovations.”  

The use of electronic mail does have ethical dimensions.

Rick Brenner of Chaco Canyon Consulting writes on his blog post, Email Ethics, that: “Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary, no matter how civil the society. And so it is with emails. The rules of civil society apply equally to all conduct, including that carried out with email. Whatever you would consider unethical in life is also unethical in email.”  

To be more practical let me list some email activities that most likely are unethical:

  • a) Being untruthful or misleading
  • b) Using improper language that is insulting, harassing or demeaning
  • c) Sending or forwarding sexually explicit images or jokes
  • d) Forwarding confidential information

As my friend, America’s crisis guru, Jim Lukaszewski says to his crisis communication clients:

“Do not send any email that you would be embarrassed to read to a Judge in court of law.”

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