How To Write A Sensitive Email

You've Got Mail!I remember talking with my wife about the purchase of our first computer connected to the internet. She said, “What’s the internet? And why do we need it?” I tried to explain that we were going to need to email somebody sometime. “What’s email,” she replied!

While that seems like a distant memory it’s not that long ago. Email has been the bane of my existence ever since! Moral of the story: Always listen to your wife!

The first principle of using email for sensitive information is this:

Don’t!

Email may be the worst form of sensitive communication, but sometimes you have to write a sensitive one anyway. On February 18, 2013, an email leaked from a Walmart executive that caused their stock price to plummet. That was one expensive email! Chances you will write an email that will cost you, too, are pretty high!

If you absolutely must send an email that includes sensitive information, here are principles to remember:

  • Every email has a life of its own. You never know who will forward it.
  • Names live on. Don’t say something about someone that could harm them if it fell into the wrong hands.
  • The context of the reader is not the context of the sender in time, place, thought. Every person will have a different take on the information. They will receive it without any external input. They will have had a bad day, maybe.
  • Your email is a permanent record. It is searchable, recoverable and someone will be able to use it in the future whether you want them to or not.
  • Not all the intended recipients will read it. Email will never be a fail-safe form of communication because not everyone you expect to read will actually open it and read it. Yes, you may be able to track who did and who didn’t, but it will never match eye contact and Q & A for delivery confirmation.
  • Make sure the people who may be affected by your email see it before it is public. Let them have a chance to speak into it for clarity and safety.
  • Let the email sit for a day.
  • Expect it will be misread. Provide a feedback loop. Make sure a follow-up plan is in place when people need to talk about the information you sent.

When in doubt, find a different way to communicate the information. Or, go back to a computer that isn’t connected to the internet…