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Email Ethics: When a Bully Hits “Send.”

  Sometimes before a speaking engagement, I have to gather my thoughts and find a topic that will have some relevance to everyone in the crowd. Other times, I don’t have to think about it at all.

    Last week, I spoke to a private executive networking group and we spent the evening discussing personal and professional ethics.   I shared a recent experience in which a former business associate deliberately forwarded a private email exchange to the individual we’d been discussing. As I told the story, the reaction of the upper-level managers and business owners in the room was electric and immediate.

    One or two have had similar accidental experiences, but all admitted they worry more about being a victim of that kind of deliberate act. All have--as have most of us in the course of a career--been asked and have given matter-of-fact, work-related, replies to queries by co-workers and employers, trusting that those comments would remain confidential.

     I found it interesting that while no one expressed any interest in who or what might have been mentioned in the email,  everyone was curious about the sender. It’s human nature, I guess. We all need to know who we can trust. And, as we discussed, while we should all behave in an ethical and professional manner, there are some occupations--medical, legal and financial, for instance--where discretion is sacrosanct. If we can’t trust a person who has access to our most intimate secrets, we’re particularly vulnerable.

    Ultimately, I learned a thing or two from the experience. I now have a legal “Do not share” addendum at the end of each email, although I know there’s not a lot any of us can do to stop someone from spitefully sending along something we’ve written.  And, without question, it was a reminder to never put in writing what you don’t want to see in print, even if you have no reason not to trust the individual on the other side of the conversation.

    In the end,  I shook my head over it for a day or so and then put it out of my mind. There is always the next little drama. But thinking about what the experience revealed about everyone involved, I remembered what my mother used to say about the occasionally nasty gossip that consumed us as teenagers.

     “Remember,” she would tell me as I mentioned the latest victim, warning me to stay clear of the cliques and bullies who seemed to take delight in pitting one against the other, “If they treat her that way today, what makes you think they won’t turn around and do the same thing to you tomorrow?”

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country.



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