Home > musing > When to go on the record with email at work

When to go on the record with email at work

August 30, 2013

I hear lots of people, mostly young, saying they’re not going to say something by email, as a default condition, in order to avoid documenting something awkward. If it’s controversial or if the subject makes them at all uncomfortable, they’re prone to trying to have that conversation by phone or in person. They avoid email.

I get that. After all, in this age of digital records, nothing ever goes away. If they’re going to say something they don’t want to be held to, then it’s only natural they’d not want to do it in a permanent way. On the other hand, if you’re saying something you want other people held to, that’s another story.

More than half the time, when I’m witness to this issue, I’ve noticed it’s actually the wrong decision, and it ends up protecting the wrong person’s interest. People should realize that documenting sensitive issues is often just as important, and often to your advantage, as not documenting sensitive issues. It also clarifies things and avoids prolonged misunderstandings.

Two made-up examples to demonstrate how to use email.

So, say you feel like your contributions to a long-term project are being ignored, and other people are starting to jockey for credit for your work. Here’s my advice. Write an email to everyone in the project and mention that you’ve done A, B, and C, and are planning to work on D. Don’t complain or whine about how much work you’ve done, but mention specifics, along with the number of hours you’re putting in.

It might seem slightly weird, but feel free to make some excuse for it like you “just want to check in and see where people are on the project or something, since there hasn’t been much of a formal effort to keep track of stuff”, and invite other people to also document their work. Force clarity. It’s good for you, not bad, to have clarity. If people don’t want to give you credit for something, they’ll have to write back and explain themselves, which is unlikely.

Second example, the opposite of the first. Say someone has written an email which documents something which you don’t agree with that involves you. Say, for example, that someone writes to a group of people saying they agreed with you on such-and-such a deal (“Cathy has agreed to work on A”), which didn’t actually happen.

Instead of going to talk to that person, just write back to the entire group saying what the actual deal is (“Actually, there’s been a misunderstanding, and I am not planning to work on A”). You should clarify quickly and often, because you need to realize that other people use email as a way of documenting stuff too. If you ignore that email, people will assume you actually did agree to that.

I don’t want to sound like a lawsuit waiting to happen – I’ve never actually been involved in a lawsuit. But by thoughtfully documenting stuff before it becomes an issue I definitely think I’ve consistently avoided problems becoming worse, especially problems related setting expectations.

Finally, if someone has done something really inappropriate, like sexual misconduct or harassment or something, document it, even just to yourself. Send yourself an email saying exactly what happened, like a journal entry. You might need that documentation later, and now you have an exact timestamp on how things went down.

Categories: musing
  1. Monneron Charles
    August 30, 2013 at 8:32 am

    I would add two more recommendations if Cathy allows me :

    First, most corporate email server support the function “read receipt”. Ask for one automatically when sending a mail (it is in your mailbox preference) and always acknowledge automatically when receiving a mail (also in your mailbox preference). The reactions of people in your organization will be enlightening : to all people who complain about this annoying pop-up from your mail, mention the existence of the “automatically acknowledge”. For the price of giving up some childish deniability, you will do yourself the favor to know a large subset of the people who lack integrity in your organization.

    Second, don’t expect that you will have the emails available in case of a dispute with your boss. It means that you must archive by yourself. This is tricky because your company security policy can restrict you a lot. Some people print and bring home, others forward everything to a personal account, others take pictures of their screen. My preferred is an mail archive that you store, compressed and encrypted, inside the network drive of a trusted colleague.


    • Abe Kohen
      August 30, 2013 at 9:42 am

      Your second point is spot on. When I left DE Shaw, and needed an email from a DE Shaw subsidiary (the now defunct FarSight), they refused to give me a copy claiming it was company proprietary. Fortunately, I had a printout of that specific email. Since then I’ve learned to bcc everything important to my personal email.


    • August 30, 2013 at 9:43 am

      Great point, I should have mentioned to journal on your own personal account.


    • bob
      August 30, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      Also note that most email clients don’t support read receipts, they don’t actually indicate the person read the email.

      All people should enable the “always reject” option in order to discourage people from using them.


      • Monneron Charles
        August 31, 2013 at 1:09 am

        Remember that the post is about internal professional email, where everybody has the same client. Outlook, thunderbird and Lotus Notes support it, and there are prevalent in a corporate context. It is true read receipt support is less common on mobile platforms, but Blackberry, THE mobile platform for big corporates (where so much politics takes place), has it.

        We visibly do not share the same opinion regarding this email function. As far as I am concerned, All employers should avoid to hire people who are ready to repudiate the emails they read.


    • Kaleberg
      September 1, 2013 at 12:20 am

      If everyone uses automatic read receipt, then it contains no information about who read the email, just who mechanically received it. Is that even useful?


      • Monneron Charles
        September 1, 2013 at 3:07 am

        There are two type of receipt, “delivery” and “read”. I prefer to use the last one that is sent only when the mail is opened, but it must be supported by the corporate mail server (Exchange does). See for instance http://support.microsoft.com/kb/192929 .

        Email is supposed to be private, so if the mail is received, the recipient is supposed to have read it, not anyone else ; unless (s)he has a personal assistant of course ! I know some bosses that go great length to NOT using their email and having everything done by the PA just to keep deniability as an option.(“maybe my PA forgot to show me this message”).


  2. badmax
    August 30, 2013 at 9:59 am

    My coworker has a folder where she sends herself email with interesting things she wants to remember / re-read. Makes it very convenient to search through your stuff and you can leave yourself notes.


  3. Heather
    August 30, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    In nursing and medicine, we say it didn’t happen if you don’t document it. That has it’s downside, obviously, but the idea is that it doesn’t matter how excellent your care and treatment of the patient was. If you don’t document, in a timely manner, that you gave x medication, turned the person in bed to avoid them getting a bedsore, etc, the record is empty of that treatment and you can be legally held responsible.


  1. August 31, 2013 at 3:42 am
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