From an entertainment perspective, one of the great joys of corporate email is that people never learn. There have been hundreds of well-publicised cases of ill-advised email use and still, the most basic - and eye-bleedingly obvious - of lessons remains unlearned: if you don't want it repeated, don't put it on email.
Yesterday, an email row between a pair of lawyers at at the firm King & Wood Mallesons was leaked to the law blog Legal Cheek. In the exchange, Tim Taylor QC criticises George Pinkham over what he perceived to be insensitivity towards outgoing staff. Some of the choicer comments in the emails included a "C U next Tuesday" gag and accusations of "self-preoccupation". Not very lawyerly behaviour.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the entire exchange was copied in to all staff - doubtless why it quickly was made public so quickly. All of which makes you realise that there are still plenty of people out there who don't get email. So, how do you argue on email?
1. Do NOT cc everyone in
Emails between two people are not private. But by hitting 'reply to all', you pretty much guarantee anything salacious or intemperate will be leaked. And if it's really bad, it'll be leaked to the whole world. So if you have an problem with someone, reply to them, not the entire company.
2. Do remember that email is bad for "tone of voice"
That comment which sounds clever and ironic in your head could well come across as crass and insenstive on email. This is doubly true of anything that is already rude. Like saying "CU next Tuesday."
3. Do NOT trick yourself into thinking it's your email
If you are using a work email address, it's the company's email. It has the company's name on it and the company is going to be upset if you bring it into disrepute. For this reason you shouldn't really discuss personal matters on company email - or hunt for jobs either.
Set up a Gmail Account. If what you're doing is really sensitive, set up a Gmail account and access it via a personal mobile phone.
4. Do NOT email in anger
If you're seeing red mist as you write, give yourself five minutes before you press send. Go for a walk. Have a cup of tea. Calm down. Now come back to your computer and read the email again. Do you really want to send that?
5. Do think about the risks
Chances are your email will not get leaked and, even if it does get leaked, the leak will not become a big story. But if it does, you could lose your job, be humiliated on a global scale and make yourself hard to employ. It's a slight risk of a catastrophe. The question to ask yourself is whether this risk is worth taking just to get one over on Bob in operations who has annoyed you with his stupid email.
It's probably not.
6. Do pick up the phone
There are two reasons to do this. First, if you say something very stupid, it will be a lot harder to prove and a lot less likely to go public. But secondly, it's much more difficult to shout at another human being on the phone than it is to be an angry little keyboard warrior. Perhaps if you talk to Bob you'll realise that actually, he didn't mean it like that. Or if he did, he might apologise and say he went over the top.
7. Do NOT escalate arguments
One of the reasons leaked email exchanges are so compelling is that they often show disagreements that start trivially and escalate until they end with scorched earth declarations of undying hatred. When we, as members of the public read them, we imagine two corporate drones, faces red with fury, veins popping out of their foreheads starting World War III over a delayed project start date. Is that how you want the world to imagine you?
8. Do try to be the bigger person
If you are attacked on email and respond calmly, avoid ad hominem insults, de-escalate arguments and take a rational, evidence-based approach, you are likely to come out of the unpleasantries well. Of the two lawyers in the exchange, George Pinkerton's approach is more like this and he looks better for it.
9. Do use email arguments to your benefit
If you are in a dispute with a co-worker, email can provide a useful document trail. For instance, if they claim you never asked them to do a task, email can show you did. Similarly, if they are going through a disciplinary procedure, emails can provide evidence that you are doing everything by the book. Again, be professional.
10. Do use the rule: if in doubt, hold off
If you're in any doubt, don't send it, because you can't un-send it.