I’m debuting a new series of posts which will occur at random, called “Email Done Well”. First, let me clarify, I’m not an “email master”, but I do have some things to share. Through personal experience and information obtained through seminars and publications such as “Send”, Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero”, and the productivity guru David Allen, I think I do “better than average” when it comes to email. Here’s the first in the series, the “Disclaimer”.
No doubt, you’ve gotten one of those emails – the one with the disclaimer at the bottom. The obnoxious looking block of text that, in some cases, can be longer than the body of the email itself. There are legitimate uses for disclaimers, however, they should be left to legal experts to author.
There are occasions, when a disclaimer in a legal context could mean you were explicitly warned if the email isn’t addressed to you, it is not your business. As email enters in as evidence in more court cases these days, the disclaimer could be that “extra icing” that drives home the point that an email not addressed to you is none of your business. Personally, I think an attorney would pursue unauthorized access to an email account or computer as evidence of violating personal property.
I’ve seen people actually attach these to personal emails, which is an exercise in futility. Here’s an example of an almost laughable disclaimer I’ve seen on a personal email:
This e-mail transmission contains information that is confidential and may be privileged.
It is intended only for the addressee(s) named above. If you receive this e-mail in error,
please do not read, copy or disseminate it in any manner. If you are not the intended
recipient, any disclosure, copying, distribution or use of the contents of this information
is prohibited. Please reply to the message immediately by informing the sender that the
message was misdirected. After replying, please erase it from your computer system. Your assistance in correcting this error is appreciated.
If you are using this type of disclaimer on personal email, please stop. If there’s only one thing you learn about email, it should be that email is basically like writing on a postcard. The sender can’t control where their email goes any more than I can flap my arms and take flight to South America. What I love in particular, are the detailed instructions given, which I’m sure everyone who mistakenly sees one of these emails follows to the letter. This isn’t a disclaimer as much as it is some implied insurance policy that the sender thinks they have should the email be addressed incorrectly, or fall into “enemy hands”.
Let’s break this meaningless set of instructions down to what it really is – a big fat waste of time and bandwidth.
This e-mail transmission contains information that is confidential and may be privileged: oh bullpucky. If it were that “privileged” or “confidential” it would be sent by another means or encrypted. There may be companies out there that require their employees to attach disclaimers to their messages, especially insurance companies and banks. For example, a suitable disclaimer for an insurance company could read “email transmissions do not bind changes in coverage”. Here’s a newsflash – someone is reading your email, and it’s not always the person receiving your message. Your email transmission takes several “hops” server to server, system to system, ISP to ISP, to reach it’s intended recipient. If you’re naive enough to think no one can read it in an unencrypted state, you should start paying your bills by stapling crisp twenties to the outside of the envelope when mailing your payments. It’s doubtful you can go to a public place (mall, grocery store, wherever) without being photographed or videotaped. Nothing you do on the internet is completely 100% ironclad private.
If you receive this e-mail in error, please do not read, copy or disseminate it in any manner: Most assuredly, this is the single most STUPID statement in the whole disclaimer. If you’re reading it, well, there you go. I suppose by disseminating how minimally effective these disclaimers are by using this example, I’m completely guilty of disobeying this statement. Anyone who reads the statement is guilty as well.
If you are not the intended recipient, any disclosure, copying, distribution or use of the contents of this information is prohibited: This should strike fear into anyone bold enough to read past the statement that they shouldn’t be reading this. I’m sure the likes of Access Hollywood, TMZ, and Fox News have always upheld this statement and never ever, ever, ever, posted an email exchange on their respective sites or on their television programs. If you are the intended recipient, does this mean you can disclose, copy, and distribute to your heart’s content?
Please reply to the message immediately by informing the sender that the message was misdirected. After replying, please erase it from your computer system. Your assistance in correcting this error is appreciated: Now you have instructions to follow. Reply to the message, erase it from your computer… I’m sure this is what everyone does when receiving one of these “in error”. And don’t you love the company that assumes their employees are dumb and send things “in error” all the time? Maybe they have psychic powers and they know when someone other than the “intended recipient” receives an email like this, it’s simply because the employee sending the email misdirected it, because they are stupid enough to think this type of disclaimer carries any weight at all.
The bottom line is, these disclaimers are worthless, not effective, and a waste of everyone’s time when used casually. If your company requires you to use a disclaimer, use it. It’s highly doubtful it’s as ridiculous as the example above. The disclaimer has more than likely been through the company’s legal department, so it should have clearer, dare I say, less “insane” statements than those in the example.
If you want to really put some meat into securing your email transmission, encrypt it. Of course, I should warn ahead of time that encrypting email is a bit more involved than cutting and pasting the same useless disclaimer. If you participate in this ridiculous practice without a legal department vetting the disclaimer, do us all a favor and STOP. You really are putting an ashtray on a motorbike when you do this.