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Learning from Lehman… What Not to Write in an Email

Posted on June 22, 2010 by Sean

A quick Google search will find countless blog posts discussing the rules, standards and etiquette for just about every kind of work-related correspondence. We know it’s stupid to send personal messages on work time, we know it’s dumb to share uncomfortable truths about our bosses or proliferate highly sensitive information, but as we’re spending more time than ever in the workplace (see chart below), even the most innocent of conversations can appear contentious. When social proximity creates friends out of co-workers, the lines of professional care can blur. Making the big mistake of blending these workplace boundaries can make it seriously easy to get into serious trouble.

Time use on an average work day for employed persons ages 25 to 54 with children

The folks at put together a list of words which could spell big trouble if found in your email. As we know, the financial giant has fallen in the wake of the subprime mortgage fallout amidst allegations of longstanding financial malpractice. Investigations have been lengthy. “The lawyer appointed to figure out what went wrong at Lehman Brothers used lots of different search terms to mine 34 million pages of documents from the bank” – The search terms below were used as criteria to isolate potentially incriminating documents and very confidential correspondence – some of which will likely be used as evidence in upcoming litigation.

  • stupid
  • huge mistake
  • big mistake
  • dumb
  • can't believe
  • cannot believe
  • serious trouble
  • big trouble
  • unsalvageable
  • shocked
  • speechless
  • too late
  • uncomfortable
  • not comfortable
  • I don't think we should
  • very sensitive
  • highly sensitive
  • very confidential
  • highly confidential
  • do not share this
  • don't share this
  • between you and me
  • just between us

Personally, I don’t think we should all start fearfully scouring our inboxes searching for the words on this list. In reality, these terms aren’t inherently incendiary – put in the right context, most of them are perfectly harmless. The truth is, most of us don’t work for a company as controversial as Lehman Brothers (thank God) so a better approach is simply taking pause before sending an email and reading over what we’ve written and eliminating anything we are not comfortable with. 

If I send you an email from my work computer – and you answer it from your work computer, we can be absolutely sure that, no matter the intent, the exchange is not just between us. Simply put, when you’re on the clock, you’re on the record (If you can’t believe that – ask your Human Resources representative, if you still cannot believe them – ask your IT manager, they know everything.) Most companies have an official policy regarding computer use – a quarterly brush-up on this policy might serve as a positive reminder.

So, it would be prudent to learn from the fall of giants, before we’re all left shocked and speechless in the wake of our own office-oversights. If there’s any question about the integrity of your inbox, clean it up now, before a small misstep becomes a huge mistake. Between you and me, for Lehman Brothers, it’s simply too late.

If you’re unsure about sending highly confidential information via email – don’t share this. While there are situations that call for the sharing of very sensitive information, the results of your exchange could be unsalvageable.

Note: you might not want to forward this email, as all of the earmarked words or phrases appear at least once.


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