The Justice Department's Email Problem

To: The Justice Department
From: Will Schwalbe
Re: Email Etiquette
Date: April 12, 2007

Dear Mr. Gonzales and Colleagues:

You may wonder why I'm writing you when we don't actually know each other. The reason is this: I thought it might be helpful for you to have someone point out a few things that may have escaped your notice about email.

What follows may all seem a bit, well, obvious. But here goes:

The first thing you need to remember about email is that it is a permanent, searchable medium.

Now before you beat yourselves up too much, take some comfort in the fact that a lot of people seem to forget this. For example, there is always the specter of those emails that Michael Brown sent during the worst days of Katrina. "If you'll look at my lovely FEMA attire you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god."

The second thing you need to remember is this. That permanent, searchable thing? It's true whether you use your work account or a personal account.

Again, don't be too hard on yourselves. Even top executives forget this. You might want to call former Wal-Mart SVP Julie Roehm and compare notes on this. She is suing the big-box employer for wrongful termination. I'm not a lawyer, but it does seem like her case isn't helped by the romantic-ish emails she exchanged with a subordinate. These were, reportedly, harvested from the subordinate's home computer by his not-very-happy wife.

The third thing to keep in mind about email is that it is an affect-less medium. An email on its own is devoid of tone. Readers project onto an email all of their own fears, beliefs, and prejudices. It doesn't matter what your intention was when you wrote your email. If it isn't there on the screen, no one knows. That's why every time you write an email you need to make a conscious effort to insert tone.

Take for example two simple sentences like, "I'm a little skittish about Bogden. I'll admit have not looked at his district's performance." These were written by your very own deputy Paul J. McNulty with reference to Nevada prosecutor Daniel J. Bogden. Perhaps he meant these to be humorous? If so, there are other choices he could have made so that it wouldn't later look like he was actually discussing removing a prosecutor and didn't even know whether there was or wasn't a good, non-political reason for doing so. My suggestion -- a smiley face ☺. That way it would have been clear, later, that he was joking. If he was. He was, wasn't he?

Finally, the fourth thing to remember: Be very sparing with your use of sarcasm on email. It never looks good later. (Snarkiness in blog posts probably falls into the same category, so apologies in advance for this one). Sarcasm comes from the Greek word for ripping flesh with your teeth. Take the example below, as reported by the New York Times:

A sarcastic internal e-mail message from one top Justice department official to another appears to confirm that personal and policy differences drove the termination of Carol C. Lam, the San Diego prosecutor who initiated investigations of Randy Cunningham when he was a Republican representative from California and Representative Jerry Lewis, as well as some defense department officials.

After a colleague said in a July 8 e-mail message that he was "sad" about something, Bill Mercer, a top Justice Department official, jokingly suggested some reasons.

"That Carol Lam can't meet a deadline," he wrote, "or that you'll need to interact with her in the coming weeks or that she won't just say, 'O.K. You got me. You're right, I've ignored national priorities and obvious local needs. Shoot, my production is more hideous than I realized.' "
Oh. That's about you guys again. Well, enough said.

I have tons more examples of email dos and don'ts that I would be pleased to share with you. I would even be happy to come to Washington, if you'd like, to give you all a personal refresher course on important things to remember when emailing. But I'll just leave you with one thought to keep in mind, a mantra as it were, that may help you stay out of trouble in the future.

It's a bit of wisdom that comes from New York's Governor Elliott Spitzer, and it's as true today as it was when he first said it. At the time, he was serving as New York's Attorney General:

"Never talk when you can nod. And never write when you can talk. My only addendum is never put it in an email."

All best,
Will Schwalbe

Co-author of SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home

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