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Caution: Email send button can be hazardous to your reputation

By now, just about everyone knows that whatever is digital can be copied, stored, and forwarded, which is one of the reasons I try to avoid using e-mail for anything highly confidential or potentially embarrassing.

But I have had a few embarrassing oops over the years. Though not a big deal, I was embarrassed the other day when I got an e-mail from a colleague asking why the “signature” at the bottom of my e-mail I sent to a list of fellow journalists had the name of a newspaper that I hadn’t written for in about two years. It was because I sent the message using my Yahoo account, which I don’t use very often and which had an out-of-date signature. I had long ago changed the signature in Outlook and on Gmail but neglected to change it on Yahoo. Lesson learned: take a look at the signature and make changes as appropriate.

But that’s nothing compared with what happened about 10 years ago when I got an e-mail from my editor of the weekly column I was then writing for the Los Angeles Times. He said something in the message that bothered me, so to get a reality check I forwarded it to my wife with the comment, “I don’t think this guy likes me.” Turns out I hit Reply instead of Forward. A few hours later I got a reassuring message from my somewhat amused editor that he didn’t hate me. I felt a bit foolish but not nearly as much as another journalist who sent a note to a colleague about a fellow reporter he had a crush on. By accident he sent it to a list server that delivered it to every reporter in the department, including the woman he was writing about.

A friend of mine had a little problem a few months ago when she forwarded a totally innocuous e-mail to her daughter. What she didn’t realize is that below the message she meant to forward were other messages including one about the surprise birthday party being planned for the daughter, spoiling the surprise. Now before I hit Forward or Reply, I glance at the bottom of the message to make sure there are no older messages I would prefer not to forward.

Don’t let social-networking services raid your address book

Also be careful when signing up for any service that asks permission to access your e-mail address list. A few years ago I was doing research about the privacy features for young teens on a certain social-networking service. Purely for testing purposes, I setup an account as a 14-year old girl named “Laurie,” but somehow accidentally sent out invitations to join me on this service to more than 1,000 people from one of my Web-based mail service’s address book. You wouldn’t believe some of the messages I got back. Ever since then, I carefully avoid entering information from any of my e-mail accounts. If I want to send invitations to friends to join me on a social network, I’ll send them one at a time.

Even clicking Reply can get you into trouble. If you’re on a mailing list and someone writes to you via that list, clicking Reply is likely to respond to the entire list.

E-mail is not for expressing strong emotions

For the most part, I try to avoid using e-mail for emotionally charged messages. If I’m upset with someone I’d rather discuss it by phone. Sometimes, if something is really bothering me, I’ll write an emotional e-mail but send it to myself–not the other person. I then wait a few hours, read it over, and inevitably delete it.

I’ve heard of plenty of other issues, including office workers accidentally sending spreadsheets containing Social Security numbers of employees, people using e-mail to send a “Dear John” letter, or even companies using e-mail to fire or layoff employees–all bad ideas.

The bottom line is to think carefully before you click that send button.


  • Be extremely careful before clicking Reply All
  • Look in the address field before clicking Reply. Make sure you’re only replying to the person who wrote to you, not an entire list.
  • Think before forwarding messages that may be inappropriate including any that contain material that may be racist, sexist, or politically charged.
  • Be cautious before using satire or humor. What might be funny and appropriate in-person might be taken out of context via e-mail or forwarded to someone who might take offense
  • Make sure whatever you have in your e-mail signature is up to date and accurate
  • Remember, e-mail is forever. Even if you delete it, others can forward it

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