Grenoble Ecole de Management DBA student, Fernando Lagraña, examined in his research thesis the ethical issues related to the use of emails in the workplace. He found seven patterns of behaviours, which he named: the seven deadly sins of e-mail.
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the number of e-mail messages in your inbox? Been harassed by a colleague demanding an immediate response? Had to call a halt to an overly animated conversation match between colleagues on the company’s network? E-mail is now an essential tool and the most popular means of communication in today’s business environment. Its specific characteristics have engendered new types of behaviour which, in some cases, are unethical, often unproductive and potentially costly, and which therefore merit the attention of all segments of the workforce, managers and employees alike.
Sin No. 1 – Carefree exuberance
Those users who, with no ill intent, contribute to the proliferation of unwanted messages which flood inboxes and infuriate their recipients. This can take the form of an overzealous employee sending messages to more people than necessary, someone using the Reply to All button without thinking, and the email that contains just "Thanks!’
Then there are those colleagues who simply can’t wait… the click-and-run merchants who burst into your office or call you just seconds after clicking on Send, demanding a reply to the message sent moments before.
Sin No. 2 – Confused identity
This regards the distinction between the spheres of our professional and private life, which used to be more much accentuated. The rise of emails has erased the frontier between the two spheres.
Information technologies mean that we may receive family photos via our office e-mail system, and on seeing such messages, sent to us by thoroughly familiar sources, we will not be inclined a priori to bin them. In the same way, we are able to consult our work e-mail at home. This overlapping of spatio-temporal spheres has become one of the main sources of friendly spam.
Sin No. 3 – Cold indifference
In the electronic environment, indifference is a new means of misusing power, as seen when a manager ostentatiously and publicly chooses to demonstrate, through the use of e-mail, that he alone holds the power to decide and impose. Such attitudes, which died down in the 70s and 80s, are now resurfacing with Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs).
In this context, we find cases of intentional exclusion, such as wrongful omission, where a staff member is deliberately left off a distribution list; or stonewalling, where messages from certain senders are intentionally ignored – a behaviour often accompanied by denial of receipt, when the recipient not only remains silent but also falsely claims not to have received the message in question.
Sin No. 4 – Impassioned anger
At the opposite pole from cold indifference, impassioned anger can often be the outcome of online debate, i.e. discussions on difficult subjects, carried out via e-mail, where the parties hold differing opinions that would benefit from a shared information context, or when the emotional content of the questions at issue is high.
Such escalation is abetted by the sense of security, not to say impunity, that is felt by the authors of e-mail messages – would their behaviour be the same in the presence of the recipients?
Sin No. 5 –– Lost truth
Let it be stated quite unequivocally: e-mail is particularly suited to forgery. In an e-mail message, both the message envelope and body of the message can be manipulated or falsified.
Forgery has to do with modifying the basic information – date, author, list of addressees… – in a message before it is sent, in order to deceive its recipients.
However, the most common action is deliberate misquotation, whereby the content of a received message is modified and forwarded without any clear indication being given of the changes made.
It goes without saying that such behaviour is unethical, and in some cases unlawful.
Sin No. 6 – Culpable ambiguity
One of the main pitfalls of e-mail is the misunderstood message. Some users capitalize on this shortcoming of the medium, either by producing messages that are intentionally ambiguous, or by claiming not to understand the meaning of a message that is altogether clear in the eyes of its author. The first tactic is known as ambiguity, the second as confusion.
Such behaviours tend to emanate from users under pressure from harsh deadlines, who hope to gain time by sowing confusion and difficulty in the communication flow… and by shifting the problems of delays and overload onto others.
Sin No. 7 – The door of secrets
Whilst some employers view that performance of the workforce could be improved by monitoring staff members’ activities on emails, others take the view that respecting the private sphere, serves to enhance overall performance.
Opinions on the matter are thus divided, but the experts are unanimous on one thing: the electronic supervision of employees ups the stress level and affects both their health and wellbeing.
This brings us to the crux of the ethical debate: can the overriding of this individual right be justified in terms of the wellbeing of the community that is the company?
The solutions: create a permit to email?
Fernando Lagraña explains that the improper use of e-mail can be put down to lack of experience. One of the researcher’s solution is to provide users with the necessary training and tools (use of filters and rules, principles of mail and inbox management, separation of personal and work correspondence, etc.) to enable each individual to develop his or her own strategy for good behaviour (as the sender) and for protection (as the recipient):
"At the very outset, e-mail was not created for the public at large but for an academic community which already had well-established rules of communication. Although very useful, e-mail is not the universal tool that many would like it to be.
"The next step is to work on the organizational culture and ethical values. It is essential to establish, disseminate and implement a policy on Internet and ICT usage. Staff members must be aware of those behaviours that are allowed and those that are forbidden.
"This effort has to be jointly undertaken, since all of us are equal when it comes to ethics. In the same way as pedestrians and drivers using the same road network, the authors and recipients of the billions of messages flying around the information networks share a common space. This is why, while we don’t need to go to the extent of imposing a driving licence, every individual should make the effort to learn the highway code for the new networks” said Fernando Lagraña.
Grenoble Ecole de Management