June 14, 2010 / 10:10 AM / in 7 years

Modern Etiquette: Forwarding jokes about the IT support guy

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Q: A colleague is angry because I forwarded an email from her without asking her permission. Was I wrong?

A: Email is fraught with etiquette pitfalls and few are deadlier than the correct use of the forward button. Should you assume it's safe to forward an email unless you're told otherwise? Or should you treat all email on a for-your-eyes-only basis? In some cases it's clear cut.

If someone emails you a joke about the IT support guy, it's safe to assume they don't want you to forward it to the support guy. Clearly an email marked confidential should be handled accordingly.

But what about the rest of your inbox?

Many people take the absolute position that you should never forward anything without permission. They hold that all email should be considered confidential, that the onus is on the receiver to protect the sender from potential embarrassment.

But that view seems to belong to a time when email was still a novelty, a pre-You Tube era when people hadn't yet figured out that jokes about co-workers could easily end up in the co-worker's inbox.

The modern etiquette advisor has no time for such pussy-footing. The increasing volume of email simply makes it impractical to ask permission everything you want to forward something. So go ahead and forward that email. Your company depends on the flow of information between employees to function.

If your correspondent hasn't yet learnt the golden rule about email -- always craft your messages with the understanding that they could be forwarded -- then she's an accident waiting to happen. Forwarding her joke about the IT support guy to the support guy is indefensible, but just might be the wake-up call she needs.

Q: A co-worker has forwarded a joke about the IT support guy to an internal email group. I know that email group includes the support guy, but I don't think my co-worker does. Should I alert her?

A: Someone once forwarded me a long email chain that included at the bottom confidential information relating to another person on the distribution list. The email chain was long enough that, most likely, nobody else would read far enough down to see that information. Common sense dictated that I should alert the sender, but I hesitated.

Alerting a colleague to a mistake that might go unnoticed felt like telling him that his fly was undone. Saving other people from embarrassment can often be embarrassing. But I figured if our positions were reversed, I would want him to tell me about my email faux pas. So I alerted the sender, who immediately sent the group an apology.

The point here is that even people who recite out loud the golden rule of email before putting fingers to keyboard make mistakes. Alerting people to their errors can be uncomfortable, but it's usually appreciated.

So tell your co-worker that the joke has landed in the wrong inbox. She might have time to recall the email before the IT support guy reads it.

Q: I'm an IT support guy. Someone has sent me a message recall request, but the original email is still in my inbox. Is it wrong of me to read it?

A: If you're a heavy user of Outlook, then you're probably familiar with its "Recall this Message" option. It's Microsoft's Get Out of Jail Free card. If you regret sending an email, perhaps because you realized that you can't afford to upset the support guy, then you can select an email from your Sent basket and attempt to undo your mistake. Much of the time the message will be deleted automatically from the recipient's inbox without him ever noticing, but it doesn't always work. When it doesn't, the recipient will see an alert in his inbox along the lines of "Susan would like to recall this message." It might as well say "Susan has done something embarrassing and begs you to pretend that you didn't see it." And that's why we're often tempted to open recalled messages.

Is it wrong to open recalled messages? Of course.

Q: Fair enough, but as the IT support guy, I can hack into everyone's email anyway. Can I do that to see if they're making jokes about me?

A: Absolutely not.

Got a question about the etiquette and ethics of workplace technology? Email richard.baum@reuters.com or tweet @rbaum.

(Richard Baum is the global editor, consumer media for Reuters. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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