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LeadingEdition: E-Newsletter for Purdue University Supervisors

Watch your words: E-mails can be considered public records

It has become common practice to communicate via e-mail on a daily basis. While we routinely send messages that are intended to be a private communication between two parties, a recipient may copy or forward the message at will. These e-mails can become longer and more personal as more people are asked to offer an opinion on the subject (or the person) being discussed. Although this method of communication is convenient and efficient, be aware that all such communications can be discoverable under certain circumstances, whether by a third party, through discovery in a lawsuit, or even by the person named in the e-mail.

E-mail messages do not disappear once they are received, sent, or even deleted. Most systems store messages on a mainframe computer, so e-mail messages remain in existence for months or possibly years � well after a user believes the information has been destroyed. E-mail messages can easily be retrieved, and the courts are now routinely ruling that e-mails are just as applicable in litigation as other types of evidence.

All of us have the right to make a public records request for University documents. E-mails with a person�s name on them can, under the right circumstances, be considered a public record. You may quickly find yourself being required to explain the meaning of your own communication to a third party.

Mind your manners

Another element of electronic communication that deserves careful consideration is our own propensity to say everything that�s on our minds at a moment in time. If we are having a bad day, or are angry at the time we compose the message, the receiver is likely to get more emotion than they expected. Even the most carefully crafted communications, under ideal conditions, can be misinterpreted and result in other problems not easily rectified after the message has been sent.

When you communicate via e-mail, we recommend you choose your words carefully and avoid emotional statements. Assume you are writing not only to your intended party, but also someone who will be analyzing your intent � real or suggested � and the meaning of every word.

Also be aware that when replying to e-mail, you need to make sure you are really sending the reply to the intended recipient. More than once we have seen situations where the person being talked about in the e-mail somehow ends up being the recipient (e.g., the sender meant to hit forward and hit reply instead).

Before using the next e-mail you write to purge your every thought about someone or something, consider a telephone conversation, or, better yet, an in-person discussion. Technology can be a great thing, but like anything else, it can cause its own brand of problems.

- Employee Relations Team

Gold rule

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LeadingEdition is an electronic newsletter for Purdue University supervisors.  It is produced and distributed by Purdue University Human Resources four times annually.  If you have questions, comments or suggestions relating to the newsletter, please call 49-41679 or email us.  Thank you.