Producer Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal publicly apologized for racially insensitive emails.
Neilson Barnard—Getty Images
By Donna Rosato
December 15, 2014

What were they thinking?

When Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin were exchanging their now infamous emails, leaked in the Sony Pictures Entertainment hacking scandal, they clearly weren’t worried about what would happen to their careers if anyone else read their notes.

You have to wonder why not: Companies routinely monitor worker communications. Email is regularly used as evidence in lawsuits and criminal investigations. Now hacking is another threat. Email isn’t private. Everyone knows that.

Pascal, who climbed the ranks at Sony Pictures Entertainment to become co-chairman, and Rudin, an Oscar-winning movie producer, are not stupid people. Yet they are just the latest example of high-profile executives who send email without a thought about what would happen if the outside world read them.

Remember David Petraeus, the four-star general and CIA director who resigned from his job after an FBI investigation inadvertently turned up emails that exposed an extramarital affair? Ironically, Petraeus didn’t even send the emails. He wrote them and saved them to his drafts folder. He and his girlfriend shared the password and simply logged in to read the drafts.

Then there’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who fired his chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly after it was revealed that she sent emails joking about traffic tie-ups caused by lane closings on the George Washington Bridge. The closures, an alleged retaliation against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s bid for governor, spawned a scandal that continues to affect Christie’s presidential prospects.

And most recently, a Harvard business school professor publicly apologized last week for an epic email rant that went viral, in which he threatened to sic the authorities on a local Chinese food restaurant that allegedly overcharged him $4 for a dinner delivery.

Even though senders should know better, “there’s an illusion of privacy, because the truth is, most of us haven’t been hacked or even know if higher-ups are reading our email,” says Dana Brownlee, president of Professionalism Matters. When it comes to successful people, she says, ego often trumps common sense. “Those with power often reach a point where they let their guard down because they feel somewhat invincible.”

It’s a trap that any of us can easily fall into, particularly in today’s time-crunched workplace, where it’s often easier to shoot off an email or text rather than pick up the phone—or, better still, walk down the hall—to discuss a sensitive issue. “We all have to be really careful about using email almost exclusively to communicate,” Brownlee says. “It’s dangerous.”

Brownlee suggests giving yourself this simple test: How comfortable would you be if your boss, a co-worker or the person you are writing about read it? Not sure? Don’t send it.

“Warning flags truly should go off in your head any time you prepare to hit send on anything you wouldn’t want to read on the front page of the paper,” says Brownlee. “Save the jokes and snarky or personal stuff for one-on-one time. You’ll be glad you did.”

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