[AI] Beware, your emails can be held against you...
Sudhir R (NeSTIT)
sudhir.r at nestgroup.net
Mon Jun 30 01:22:42 EDT 2008
Tara Weiss, Forbes / rediff.com
June 28, 2008
Two Bear Stearns executives learned a hard lesson this week: If you're going to say something inappropriate, don't write it in an e-mail.
An online exchange between fund managers Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi questioned the performance of certain funds in which they were investing clients'
money. But their public comments told a different story, and now those e-mails are the smoking gun in the civil and criminal cases against them. If convicted
of conspiracy and securities fraud, the two could face jail time and heavy fines.
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Will employees ever learn that anything they write in an e-mail can and will be used against them?
"This stuff is obtainable, and it's difficult to deny once it's printed out," says Josh Bowers, a labor lawyer in Washington, D.C.
Of course, we're not encouraging you to behave illegally offline, either. But the risk of getting caught online is high. Employees send hundreds of e-mails
daily from their work computer, and experts say they too often broach subjects that should be avoided. The most common? Sex.
Many employees write e-mails or forward jokes with sexual overtones. On the one hand, forwarded jokes are usually meant to be harmless. The danger comes,
however, if a complaint against the sender is filed that may have nothing to do with the inappropriate e-mails. For example, a manager who is unhappy with
her employee's ability to meet deadlines might ask IT to monitor his e-mail transactions. It's only then that the sexual e-mails come to light, which provide
reason enough to fire an employee or even prompt legal action.
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Those e-mails can be used to show a pattern of harassment," says Matthew Blit, a labor lawyer with Levine & Blit in New York City.
Discrimination is another dangerous topic. Blit recalls a case in which a female employee filed a lawsuit against her employer, claiming it didn't protect
her from sexual and racial discrimination. As part of the discovery process, the employer examined her outbox, and what they found seriously hurt her case.
She forwarded dozens of jokes containing sexual and racial content to her brother and mother from her work computer.
"The attorney said, 'You're complaining you were discriminated against, but here you are sending them out yourself. Isn't that correct?' " Blit says.
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It's an important message: Nothing written from your work computer--even if it was sent from a personal e-mail address--is private. Most employee handbooks
include an electronic communications policy stating that any correspondence sent from an employer-owned computer belongs to the company. Before starting
a job, most companies require new employees to sign the handbook and return it to human resources to prove that they've read and agree with it.
And technology allows employers (and prosecutors) to retain messages sent years ago. Some employers periodically scan employees' e-mail for certain key
words, like profanities, or other vocabulary that could denote violence or harassment.
Labour lawyer Patrick Boyd encourages all employees to implement what he dubs "the grandmother test." If a topic is too embarrassing to share with your
grandmother, don't send it. It's a tough guideline to follow, since our work and personal lives are so intertwined. We receive e-mails from family members
while at the office and respond offhandedly between assignments. A lax attitude toward e-mail seeps into our interoffice communication, too.
"That's dangerous," Boyd says. "When you communicate something, even though you did it after giving the topic 30 seconds of thought, it can be used in a
court of law years later. E-mail is perceived as casual, and it should not be."
Even a confidential exchange between an attorney and a client isn't protected if an e-mail is sent from a client's work computer to her lawyer.
The Bear Stearns executives are just the latest in a long line of employees who've drawn negative attention--and legal trouble--for inappropriate e-mails.
Take Frank Quattrone, the investment banker from Credit Suisse First Boston who sent an e-mail to his staff with the subject line: "Time to clean up those
files." The note referred to the firm's practice of discarding certain files and memos. Quattrone's conviction was later overturned.
In 2002, Merrill Lynch paid $100 million to settle a lawsuit because its analysts were making certain statements about stocks in public but whispering others
behind closed doors. The private comments didn't stay that way after analyst Henry Blodget's e-mails were uncovered. He had given stocks "buy" ratings,
but his correspondence showed he actually thought they were a "piece of junk."
More recently, the head of mortgage lender Countrywide, Angelo Mozilo, intended to send a colleague a note deeming a borrower's plea for help "disgusting."
Instead, he directed the e-mail back to the borrower. When the borrower went public with the news, the company was forced to confirm that the e-mail was
indeed from its CEO.
It's unlikely that particular e-mail would have passed the grandmother test. But everyone else's definitely should.
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