During the course of the last year or so, I have detected a trend in corporate life that bears momentary scrutiny, then universal action by anybody who wants to remain standing in the years to come. It’s this: your corporation has the right to look at your e-mail. Mostly, they will not do this, because they know that once they do, you’re probably cooked. So they do it with increasing regularity, but only to people against whom they want to build a case. And once they do, there’s a 99% shot that case is made.
Let me put it another way. No matter how careful you are, no matter how thoughtful and responsible, there are things in your e-mail that are against corporate policy. Did you send that smutty little joke or picture you found amusing to friends around the nation and the world? Did you make a nasty comment about your boss to a colleague? About a colleague to your boss? Did you try to flirt with somebody in language not totally appropriate to the Board Room? Did you troll the internet for saucy stuff that might shock the General Counsel? Did you argue with your spouse about the cost of early childhood education, conversation that took up the better part of a week and many working hours? How about your divorce? How much company bandwidth did you occupy during that period? Last November, when that search firm was talking to you, did you reply on Outlook? Having an affair, were you? Are you? How long an e-mail chain did that create on the Company’s dime?
My pal Bannister runs a Marketing firm. One day the head of Security came to see him. Seems an employee of his, let’s call him Burns, had been acting suspiciously. His subordinates were worried about him. So Security, which works for HR, checked his e-mail. Whoa. Loads of objectionable stuff. Porn, mostly. Some random trolling for unmentionables on Craigslist. A record of random, mysterious assignations. And that was that. Burns had to go. They had it on paper. Too much of him had leaked out into an official record that is checked only when a certain bell has tolled.
Then there’s my friend Dorkin. He’s in the Tech Sector. Everybody seems very relaxed there, but they’re really not. They’re just as corporate as anybody, they just wear backpacks instead of briefcases. His boss hates him. They both know it. Recently, his boss tried to move against him, but he failed, in that case. So it’s pretty clear he went to HR and said, “How can I get rid of this guy?” And HR said what it generally says more and more these days, “We have the right to look at his e-mail.” And they do, you know.
Even the erased stuff. Even the stuff you erased years ago, when you were having that mid-life crisis at 40. Remember what you were into then? Uh-huh. Like an open book to them, that is. So they checked on Dorkin, and guess what they found. Bad things. Not bad things if you compare him to Slobodon Milosevic or Bernie Madoff or even the guys at the SEC who made Bernie Madoff happen. But bad enough, by corporate standards. Personal things. Ooky things for your boss, his boss, and the head of HR to know about you. Isn’t there something on your system that might fit that bill?
They had a talk with Dorkin. It was not pretty. Now he’s hanging on by a thread. And there aren’t a lot of opportunities for a guy at his level in Chicago, or anywhere, for that matter.
The game has changed. Electronic communications has gained a powerful ubiquity in our lives. The trail of our existence is left like snails leave slime over every digital surface we touch. Just ask Tiger Woods. There’s nothing private anymore, once it hits the cloud.
So we have to change. If it’s business, stay on the system. If it’s funny or warm or stupid or personal or revealing or random or candid in any way, on the other hand, get yourself a Gmail account and use it. Anything else, you’re like a dog rolling over to show its tender belly in the face of a predator. You’ve been warned.