Common problems and their causes
What would we do without email? Most people now routinely send and receive scores of messages each day without a thought and it has become a ubiquitous part of the way we work. In seconds we can compose and send a message to every member of staff within the institution and far beyond.
Aside from speed and convenience its other great asset is its versatility. The following represents only a small sample of the range of uses it is commonly put to:
- Sharing documents
- Sharing information
- Asking questions
- Requesting information
- Planning social events
- Agreeing a course of action
- Sharing jokes
- Holding discussions
- Swapping contacts
- Planning business meetings
- Confirming agreements
- Assigning tasks
- Exchanging gossip.
The list is certainly diverse. It is also potentially very dangerous. Mixed together in the same medium and sharing the same format are formal business records and humorous trivia. Emails agreeing high value commercial contracts sit next to invitations to the pub on a Friday afternoon - all stored together alongside the other thousand messages that make up the average user’s inbox.
Why this issue is important
The list below demonstrates some of the most serious potential risks inherent in the unmanaged use of email.
Important business records are lost
Email is increasingly being used to confirm actions and agree contracts. Such emails are business records required for evidential purposes. However, often such emails get treated the same as any other and left in the inbox of the recipient or in a personal folder.
Email applications are not designed for storing records and without the proper controls in place they can often be deleted by mistake. All information should be managed according to its content, not its format. You wouldn’t keep all your spreadsheets in one place and your documents in another; you file them together according to the subject matter to which they relate.
Email should be treated in the same way and stored alongside other relevant information in an appropriate storage place (network drive etc). It is not normally necessary to print emails out to ‘file’ them in hard copy.
Sensitive or confidential information is accidentally disclosed
It is too easy for emails to be sent to the wrong person. Many applications will ‘auto fill’ the address being typed based on previous messages sent. Without due care this can easily lead to mistakes.
It is also common for people to mistakenly select ‘reply to all’ rather than to one specific individual. This can often lead to information intended for the eyes of one person being broadcast to many. Email discussion lists where the default reply option is to send to the entire list are notorious for this.
Damaging or embarrassing information is revealed
People use work email applications to send jokes and trivial information. Unfortunately the law is not known for its sense of humour. Casual asides and ironic comments may well be taken at face value and can easily ruin careers.
The Freedom of Information Act covers all recorded information, including email. Consider the contents of your inbox and sent items folder – would you be happy to see it stuck to the departmental notice board, or published in the local paper? If not, you have a potential time bomb on your hands.
See our guide on Managing your email.