Halloween is a time for scary stories – tales of vampires and ghouls rising from the dead to terrify innocents – a time when things that you thought were dead and buried come back to haunt you.
Unfortunately, the analogy between badly written email and the undead is all too appropriate. A hasty word can return to haunt you long after you hit the send button and thought the conversation was over. Careers have been destroyed, money lost and relationships ruined when an email returned from beyond.
The problem is that we have a bad habit of treating email as a very casual form of communication. We think of it as an extension of our last phone conversation or a continuation of the chat in the hallway. We assume that the recipient understands the context and correctly interprets our tone. When third parties read your message, however, they assume that you spent as much time crafting and wordsmithing your message as you would have in the days of typewritten memoranda. They may or may not understand (or care about) the context of the message and they will interpret the tone according to their own preconceptions.
Legally, email is a type of formal business communication. The contents of the message are not protected. You have no right of privacy in your email, either sent or received. Any email can be subpoenaed and forced into the public record. Or it could be saved, forwarded or posted to the internet by one of the recipients. When you write your emails, you must assume that it will be read by an unknown and unforeseen audience. Assume that anything you write will come out at the worst possible time and in the worst possible light.
Be professional in your email. Include enough context that the unforeseen reader understands the message. Be personable yet professional in tone. (In particular, never use sarcasm in email.) Never write anything that you would be embarrassed to see on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper. Remember, email can come back to haunt you.