A great benefit of email is the ability to communicate with a broad group of people on a single subject. You can forward messages that include valuable content to others, such as verbatim comments, reports or specific instructions from others. But as with the permanency of email messages, this positive aspect of email can also prove to be potentially lethal as well.
Messages are frequently forwarded many times. In fact, some emails have a message trail so long it makes Lewis and Clark look like they went for a walk in Central Park. I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous forwarded email trails actually can be.
I’ll bet you have your own story. Here’s an example of one I witnessed:
Several years ago an executive of a company sent an email to a co-worker regarding an upcoming visit by a very important supplier. He included precise details of what he wanted to tell the supplier as well as things that he did not want them to know. He explained the exact strategy he wanted his team to use in negotiating the new contract and details of the terms and pricing he would eventually settle on, but was hopeful they could do better.
The executive forwarded the message to two of his directors to make sure they were aware of and clearly understood the direction for this meeting. But in the same message he also wanted to know if there were any other topics they thought should be addressed during the supplier’s visit.
Here is where the real trouble begins. He “double dipped” the message. By adding a second topic he created a reason for this message to exist beyond its original purpose.
To be able to respond correctly to the second question, the co-worker forwarded the message to his managers to gather additional agenda issues. In a few days time, the email had branched out in many directions and topics and had grown to about seven pages long. It now had a life of its own. The executive’s original message was long forgotten about, buried at the very end of the email trail.
You probably can guess what happened next. The message eventually was forwarded to the key executive of the supplier. In one of the branches of the message, an employee had asked what time the executives from the supplier were arriving. So someone had forwarded it to a contact at the supplier’s office with a note that read, “Mr. Johnson sent me this email inquiring about your travel plans…” And the whole email trail went with it.
I can tell you that it took a long time for the executive who wrote the original email to get out of that jam. The truth is, the relationship was never quite the same after that.
While you can send email messages confidentially, most of us rarely use this feature, and it is easily overcome anyway with the handy cut and paste feature or by printing.
Remember, for “happy trails,” always review your email messages as though many people may read them, not just the people to whom you are sending them.
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