Talk versus Email: When Electronic Communications Gets You Sued

 

Electronic communications are a mixed blessing. Business is more efficient and new ways of commerce continue to open. However, ubiquitous electronic communications have eroded our personal time and presented near-addicting distractions. From a legal standpoint, electronic communications, and especially e-mails, not only create damaging evidence but may even contribute to legal claims.

The Role of E-mails in Business

E-mails and increasingly text messaging allow us to quickly send detailed responses in a fraction of the time it may take to talk. It allows one to send messages in the wee hours of the morning when one could not call the other party. On occasion, a complex topic requires a written explanation or the recipient may be a visual learner who needs to read the instructions. Or perhaps you want to set the tone or provide essential background before engaging in the serious discussion and analysis with others. As a lawyer, I readily admit to crafting my clients’ e-mail communications to build a paper trail or to establish a necessary legal framework. Perhaps the issue is a sensitive legal point and you want no misunderstanding. All valid ways to use e-mail.

Of course, we may use e-mails when we simply do not want to talk to a person. Perhaps the person drones on and you simply don’t have the time to chat. Perhaps you consider yourself a cut-to-the chase kind of manager and don’t believe that you have the time for pleasantries. Perhaps the person has a difficult personality and you are trying to avoid conflict. Maybe you’re just swamped. And … sigh … how many of us foolishly multitask by sending emails while in a meeting or on the phone. I confess my guilt and my increasing acceptance of the fact that one often doesn’t multi task, but rather only does a half … er … halfway job on both tasks.

So e-mail is not “bad.” E-mail is a tool and can be used properly or improperly.

Properly Using the Tool

The proper use of e-mail in communications has been on my mind this week because I have seen situations where the e-mail process exacerbated a situation because of the lack of real time back and forth or because an employee responding was not acting in good faith and was using the e-mail to prevent amicable resolution. Therefore, I will provide some rules and guidance on the proper use of this tool.

    • In a perfect world, I’d tell you to draft every e-mail communication as if it will later be an exhibit in a trial … because it may in fact end up as evidence.  I’ll settle for you stopping and thinking in this manner about emails which deal with discipline, counselling, accommodation, complaints and investigation, serious safety matters, and similar HR and Safety topics.
  • Always ask yourself, “should I be making this communication in person or over the phone?” “Do I have a specific reason to use E-mail?”

 

  • If you have more than one reason for using e-mail, determine the main reason because your purposes may conflict with one another.  As an example, are you trying to build evidence or document your response?  Or is the principal goal to defuse a situation or to genuinely show employer interest and respond to a concern.  These two goals may conflict with one another.
  • These questions become more important when the recipient is a complaining employee.
  • E-mail is tone deaf. If the matter is sensitive or inflammatory, think through how a reasonable person will receive the message.  Does the message unintentionally come across as brusque or dismissive? 
  • What about perception? As another example, does the e-mail read as if you were attempting to engage in the interactive process to discover a possible reasonable accommodation, or does it look as if your mind is already made up?  Does the e-mail suggest the employer’s good faith or due diligence, or does it appear disinterested?  Does a discussion of the costs of abatement of a hazard appear to be a reasonable determination of feasibility and the most prudent way to expend capital, or does it appear that the employer is callous and putting money ahead of safety.  Remember, we are not talking about your intent, we are talking about PERCEPTION and how the communication may be spun.
  • Also consider how an unreasonable person might respond to an email.  Sometimes, no matter what you type, the person will find something objectionable and the communication will throw fuel on the fire or be misused as evidence against you.  A very short e-mail response or the use of other communication method may be wise.
  • Admittedly, sometimes e-mail is the only way to respond for any number of reasons, but when the other person is in any way reasonable, a face-to-face meeting allows you to read their expressions and revise your approach.

My conclusion? Think about your e-mails, especially in the HR setting, and use the tool properly.

Howard

 

About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
This entry was posted in ADA, attitude/culture, discipline and discharge, discrimination, employer policies, generational differences, internal investigations, performance improvement, social media, training, whistleblower/retaliation. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s