Be aware of the paperless trail

November 9, 2006

Firing off an an e-mail may be a quick and easy way to communicate with a group of people but remember, a hastily written missive may just come back to haunt you, warns Harriet Swain.

Hi guys. What's the feeling about this term's teaching timetable? Hope you can squeeze in a conference because here's the programme. By the way, Dave, how's the hangover?!"

Hmm. What is the recipient supposed to file this e-mail under - teaching timetables? Conferences? Dave's drink problem?

When communicating by e-mail it is really important to keep to one topic per message, says Gilly Salmon, professor of e-learning at Leicester University. Otherwise, she says, it is almost impossible to have an ongoing discussion. If someone sends her a message containing two or three points she will separate her reply into three different messages. This means labelling it in three different ways, too.

"Titles are everything," Salmon says. People are much more likely to open the message in the first place and are much more likely to reply if you give your message a title. You must also make sure this title is short yet highly descriptive so that people will be able to file and find it again. A common mistake is to reply to a message but fail to rename it, even though the topic has changed.

This is important because the likelihood is, you'll want to keep it. "One of the fundamental principles for people to remember is that an e-mail is a record and can be disclosed and used as such," says Steve Bailey, records and information manager for the Joint Information Systems Committee. "A lot of people think of e-mail as the written equivalent of a phone call - you can hang up and no damage is done. But it is much more akin to a memo that may come back to haunt you."

Seb Schmoller, executive secretary of the Association for Learning Technology and an independent consultant on online learning and the internet, says an e-mail exchange is no less admissible in legal proceedings than an exchange of letters, and if you send an e-mail from an institutional address its contents will probably be liable to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

Bailey suggests sending e-mails to friends from a separate account, such as hotmail or Yahoo, while at work to avoid this, and advises against combining social and business arrangements. "There is an element of risk about using the same medium for more than one purpose," he warns.

Schmoller warns that even if you and your recipient delete an e-mail, a copy will probably remain somewhere in your institution or on a computer in the world outside. It may also have been forwarded without your knowledge.

Bearing this in mind, Schmoller says you should take care with informality in e-mails, as well as with judgmental or easily misconstrued references to identifiable individuals or organisations. If you believe that an e-mail should be treated with discretion, make this clear in the subject line by including a term such as confidential, so long as you realise that this will only lessen, rather than prevent, the chance that it reaches a wider audience.

He warns against sending e-mails with long tails of text left at the end since you never know what might be lurking there. If you want to forward an e-mail in which someone has expressed an opinion, it is also worth checking with the person if he or she is happy for you to share it with someone else.

Schmoller advises using the "reply all" sparingly and taking particular care with e-mails sent to distribution lists, since you rarely know exactly who is on them. The archives of many distribution lists are indexed by Google and other search engines, which means your words will be freely available for years to come to anyone who cares to search.

And you need to be aware of revealing e-mail addresses, too. If you need to send something to a large number of people you should use "blind carbon copy" (bcc) for recipients, otherwise you will be freely sharing their e-mail addresses with everyone else.

Meanwhile, Salmon says it is important to distinguish between "to" and "cc". If a message is carbon copied to you, it is for information rather than in expectation of a reply.

John Kelly, legal information specialist with Jisc legal, warns that any e-mail containing individuals' personal data will be covered by data protection legislation, which means that their content will usually have to be disclosed on request to the individual concerned.

He says you also need to think about libel and copyright, as well as the possibility of harassment. Anything indecent, offensive or malicious could be liable to prosecution under the Malicious Communications Act. But you must use common sense. "If it is something that you wouldn't say out loud to this person in company, then you probably shouldn't be saying it in an e-mail," he says.

Bailey says you need to think particularly carefully about style and use of language in an e-mail because without tone of voice or body language a remark intended to be jokey could be interpreted as offensive.

This is especially important when your discussion is with more than one person. Salmon says that if too many people are involved in a discussion by e mail it is a good idea to break down into smaller groups in a structured way.

But however many people are involved, she says that in a general discussion over several e-mails someone needs to take responsibility for weaving the contributions together and for summing up at the end.

Finally, Bailey says, before you pick up your mouse you need to consider whether e-mail is the most appropriate mechanism for what you want to achieve. "Sometimes you can have half a dozen e-mails to arrange a meeting," he says. "Why not pick up the phone?"

Further information Association for Learning Technology: www.alt.ac.uk

Joint Information Systems Committee: www.jisc.ac.uk

TOP TIPS

Consider whether e-mail is the best tool for the job

Stick to one message per e-mail

Label it clearly

Don't mix business with pleasure

Remember that anything you write will remain on record

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