In Business, Assume Any Email You Write Will Be Read by the Wrong Person

Years ago, I ended up in embroiled in a hassle with a customer in a separate business venture because of an unfortunate path taken by an email I had written.  The condensed version of this is that the company with which I was working as an independent contractor had received a complaint about the way I had spoken to this person, as well as about my general approach to servicing this individual.  The background (admittedly, my side here) is that the customer was one of the most extraordinarily difficult with whom I’d ever had the displeasure of working in all of my years as a professional, and I will confess that my demeanor and decorum, while certainly not poor (again, in my own opinion), was not what it normally is. 

Anyway, one thing led to another, and my supervisor in all of this asked for an email from me so that he could get my take on the whole matter.  Understanding that this was to be a sharing of private thoughts between the two of us, I used the opportunity, in part, to vent, in no uncertain terms, about the difficulties I’d been having with this person.

What do you suppose he did next?  He forwarded the email to the customer directly – not intentionally, but carelessly.

What followed was a full-blown shitstorm, as you can well imagine.  Now, I could blame that supervisor for having done something so stupid as to have, quite mindlessly, forwarded an email without review (yes, he later admitted he didn’t even read it) that he knew full well was intended as a private communication between the two of us.  The truth is I’m still a little pissed at him for having done what he did, as inadvertent as it may have been; he had a well-deserved reputation for being a bit too laid-back, so it was perhaps in keeping with his inattention to detail that this happened.  HOWEVER, in the light of day, and after all amends had been made and lots of pride had been swallowed, I had to admit that the root cause of all my problems here was that I had chosen to put what I did in an email in the first place.  What I should have done, even when he was asking for my thoughts in a forum that was ostensibly between the two of us, was to pretend that the customer would eventually read the email (which obviously happened, anyway).

I had learned my lesson, and learned it the hard way, which is sometimes the best way.  In business, you will always come across that occasional customer who is exceedingly difficult – it happens; and there is nothing unnatural about even harboring a few hard feelings toward that person.  Doing so is surely not in keeping with “the better angels of our nature,” as termed by Lincoln, but it is a perfectly understandable, human way of being, given the circumstances.  However, at no time should those hard feelings ever see the light of day in a business forum of any kind.  Nothing constructive ever comes from their expression, while a lot that is destructive can.   

The other thing you have to remember is that, in this day and age, your communication may easily come to be viewed by more than just the offended party.  The recipient may decide to forward your email to lots of other places, or post it somewhere public, or otherwise use the evolutions of the digital age to bring a lot of attention to just what a horrible person you at least appear, by virtue of that email, to be. 

Problems like that on a personal level, while distressing, can pale in comparison to what the offenses can cost your business.  As (fairly) smart and as disciplined, and even as usually decorous as I can be…I’m still human, and in the end, being human is something we have to guard against, as much as embrace, in the workplace environment.

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