News of events related to the scandal involving General David Patraeus and his affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell reminds us that even the powerful and successful succumb to poor professional judgment. What’s one important lesson for “regular people” to learn? It appears as if inappropriate emails created a paper trail that led to this story breaking in the news. Some agencies reported that Patraeus and Broadwell might have even employed subterfuge techniques to avoid having their online communication tracked.
It begs the question: what should you never, ever put in an email (or in writing at all), especially when it relates to work? The answer is easy: if you don’t want it broadcast, forwarded or publicized, don’t share it electronically, either in email, Facebook or other social media tools or via text messages.
Specifically, consider the following topics off limits, especially for your work email:
1. Critiques of your company, your boss or your colleagues. You don’t have to love everything that happens at the workplace, but if you have to complain, make sure it isn’t via an email exchange between you and another disgruntled colleague. Realistically, your biggest concern is that someone may forward one of your emails to someone you don’t want to see it. However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from news of this recent scandal, everything online can be tracked. Even if you aren’t the director of the CIA, assume it’s possible someone may eventually monitor or review your emails.
2. Extremely private or personal matters. Of course, this includes romantic (especially illicit) affairs. Assume everything you put in writing is fodder for a billboard for everyone you know to see. This includes text messages, social media communication and email. Never assume you have any privacy online. While you may not have the FBI looking into your personal matters, a private citizen can easily lose a job – or even a career – over an inappropriate romantic matter.
3. Discriminatory opinions. If you are a racist, homophobic or you believe women belong in the kitchen and not in the boardroom, keep it to yourself. When you broadcast these opinions via email, you run the risk that your controversial, backwards views will become public.
4. Gossip. Most people succumb to sharing gossip, at least occasionally, with close friends or colleagues. However, when you use email to pass along the juicy details you overheard at the water cooler, you leave a paper trail and risk shifting what you may consider harmless gossip to printed documentation with the capacity to easily put your job at risk.
5. Non-work related photos. Hopefully, you don’t need a reminder that personal photos of any kind should not cross your work email. Even an otherwise innocent picture can be misinterpreted and become grist for the gossip mill in the best-case scenario and grounds for firing you in the worst-case scenario.