On the Clock

The Power of the Forwarded Email

Professionals spend too much time pondering who to copy or blind copy. Why the most potent email action is forwarding.

Connor didn’t see it coming. He wrote an email to one of his colleagues complaining about the way his boss often sends email. Three days later, lo and behold, Connor discovered his note somehow had been forwarded, with his boss on the chain.

While this scenario hasn’t happened, it couldn’t be a more real story in our business world today. By next year, the number of work emails sent and received per user each day is expected to average 126, up 3% from 122 in 2015. That’s nearly 130 billion emails sent for business each day. And while there are many different elements to emailing that create minefields for professionals—from carbon copying (or CC-ing) to replying all—experts say the email action that’s most overlooked, and perhaps most dangerous, is forwarding a missive.

Much of the risk is out of your control. But be mindful, when writing, that anyone could forward your note.

“The worst emails are forwards,” argues Georgia Institute of Technology media studies professor Ian Bogost in The Atlantic. “Unlike the forwarded joke, which your uncle actually means for you to read and enjoy along with him, the corporate email forward is meant to transfer the obligation to act from one agent to another.”

Indeed, many work emails are sent purely to cover our butts, or sent as FYIs instead of picking up the phone or walking down the hall to discuss a matter with a colleague. But in an age when electronic discovery in legal cases is exploding, and workplaces continue to include more contractors, forwarded emails become all the more perilous. Of course, much of this risk is out of your control and you can’t muzzle yourself on everything. Just be mindful, when writing an email, that any recipient could forward your note. As Richard Seitz, a litigation attorney in Baltimore, puts it, “Never put anything in writing that you would not want to be discoverable.” Below, three points on what to consider before pressing the forward button.

Contractor slippage

Chance are, many of the people you interact with on a regular basis at work aren’t full-time employees. Indeed, companies today are outsourcing 20% to 50% of their workforce in efforts to save on costly benefits. But contracting creates a host of concerns from a privacy standpoint, including what’s confidential and gets transferred from a company email address to a contractor using a Gmail account. Rebecca, a contractor for a marketing company, has seen internal data on digital marketing conversion rates for her firm. While she’s privy to the information because of her role, she hasn’t signed a confidentiality agreement (the boss who hired her just told her to hand over a W-9), and if those rates were to be forwarded, it could be embarrassing for her firm—and give competitors a peek at how her company is really doing.

Nice introduction … not

In a recent real-life example, Justin (whose name has been changed) needed to be looped in on an email for his new role at an architecture firm; his boss forwarded a note that merely stated, “Justin is CC-ed here.” The forward created an awkward introduction for him because the woman who had requested his email address had written, “I can’t find Justin’s info in the damn system.” Communication pros say tones that can be casual and collegial between co-workers who have a certain rapport level can take on a negative connotation when forwarded to someone outside the circle or new to the company culture. “Think about it as the red-face test,” says Alexander Lowry, executive director of the financial analysis master of science program at Gordon College in Massachusetts. “If a reporter got ahold of your email and it landed on the front page of the New York Times, would your face turn red?” If so, you might want to think twice before quickly knocking out the email.

The timeline tells all

A perfectly innocent email today might be a total disaster in three to six months, when read at a different date. Let’s say the company’s financial information has changed for the better, and three months ago you wrote that the strategy the firm started using wasn’t working. All of a sudden, if that email is forwarded at a later date, you look like the naysayer—and the one who got it wrong. “Most people don’t remember that email is a permanent record,” Lowry says. “What you write today may not matter now, but down the road it could be completely embarrassing.”

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