Much has been said
about the risk of overusing e-mail. This article provides yet another
perspective, to be considered by Board or Council members in public
organizations (e.g.: local government, school boards, etc.).
Imagine this scenario: A member of a public Board gets annoyed with
a colleague's statement or with how the Chair treats him at a meeting.
He then composes an angry e-mail. Before sending it, he decides to
add clout by placing all Board Members and Senior Staff on the distribution
list, thereby spreading the venomous message further. The attacked
member responds with his or her own attack. Not to be outdone, other
members chime in. A full blown e-mail war erupts. Is this an effective
way to resolve a dispute? Clearly not.
In another scenario, a Council member who rarely speaks during meetings
sends condescending e-mails about citizens who observe Council meetings
or speak as public delegations. One day he pushes the SEND button without
noticing that the recipient is a media reporter. The comments become
the source of news stories, not the kind of publicity a public official
E-mail is a powerful communication tool. It expedites the sharing of
information and can save time and paper. However, if not used carefully,
it can make your worst nightmare a reality.
What to do? Here are a few suggestions:
First, although e-mail is useful for sharing information,
it is not an effective dispute resolution vehicle. Angry people often
say words in an e-mail that they'll never utter in front of others.
Such e-mails poison the air and can inflict substantial and possibly
irreparable damage on the trust and collegiality that are so essential
to Board decision-making. So, yes, go ahead and send reports and documents
by e-mail, but don't air your dirty laundry over the internet.
Second, never assume that your e-mail will be a confidential
document. Once you push the SEND button you should assume that you'll
lose all control over what you wrote. Many people write contemptuous
remarks and inadvertently e-mail them directly or indirectly to the
parties they are deriding.
Third, keep in mind that - even if your e-mail is
sent to the right person - it could potentially be accessed by the
public under freedom of information legislation. So the safest assumption
you can make is that your e-mail is public.
Perhaps the simplest word of caution goes like this: Before you push
the SEND button, ask yourself: Would I be comfortable having
this e-mail displayed over the pages of the newspaper or discussed
on the six o'clock news?
If the answer to this question is NO, re-write the e-mail or wait to
express your concerns directly to the individuals who could benefit
from your feedback.