Thursday, July 23, 2009

Could Your Texting Get You In Legal Hot Water at Work?

"Never put anything in a e-mail message you wouldn't want read in front of 12 lawyers."

That's the best advice I've ever been given by a lawyer, and I pass it along as often as I can. The reason is this: lawyers love e-mails when they prepare a lawsuit for sexual harassment or labor rules violations. The same lawyer who told me that little gem also told me that lawyers say e-mail is the "gift that keeps on giving."

It seems so. Recently I visited a lawyer friend who had boxes and boxes of stuff being delivered to his office. He told me they were all e-mails from several years ago involving a case he was working on. He then told me that was just a drop in the bucket -- many more boxes would be delivered throughout the week.

As you may or may not understand, e-mail doesn't go away. It hangs around longer than cockroaches. And, even though you may think you've killed an e-mail, you haven't. Some tech-savvy lawyer will always be able to retrieve it.

The reason I bring up this message again is that the legal scope of what employers and/or lawyers will investigate regarding employee communications has widened.

According to the National Law Journal, "textual harassment" claims are on the rise.

"Texting may seem to users as ephemeral — and hard to trace — as a phone conversation. But the messages leave behind an electronic record, and for lawyers, those records are increasingly being used to bolster a variety of claims, particularly in the workplace. For employers, that means a growing source of liability as business-related texting continues to proliferate," the story says.

It goes on to further say:

"The most prominent cases, thus far, have involved male bosses who have sent scandalous texts to female employees, asking them out on dates or promising promotions in exchange for sexual favors. In litigation, texts have become even more potent than e-mail, employment lawyers say, as texters tend to be more casual with their language. Texts can also serve plaintiffs by helping prove that they have been at a particular place at a particular time.

"Certainly what we're seeing is just rather unfathomable....You'd think that people would know that this is something that they shouldn't do, but they seem to be doing it anyway," said Danielle Urban, an attorney in the Denver office of Atlanta's Fisher & Phillips who is currently defending two employers in separate textual harassment lawsuits. They involve lower-level managers allegedly texting photos of their genitalia to female subordinates. "I don't know what it is about texting," Urban said. "But it's really bringing out the worst in people."

So, consider this your warning. In this tough economy, the last thing you need is for your employer to fire you for such behavior. Keep your texting and e-mailing so clean that 12 lawyers would be bored to death.

What other mistakes do people make regarding electronic communication at work?


Zack S. said...

It boggles my mind that someone - especially someone intelligent and accomplished enough to get to such a high position - would be dumb enough to put that on the record (any record). No accounting for Lust I guess.
Good post.
Since I have nothing else to add, I volunteer that media stop the annoying trend of combining sex and text. "Textual Harassment" "Sexting" ugh.

Robert Hruzek said...

It boggles the mind, don't it? Still, quite a few folks have no problems with trashing fellow employees, the boss, or even the company in their emails - not even on the company system! Sheesh!

It's like the ability to "think things through" is slowly being drained away... *sigh*

Anita said...

Zack S.,
I have to wonder if this problem isn't part of that "do as I say not as I do" culture that gets people in hot water. People think electronic conversation is just like using the's not. Thanks for your comments.

Anita said...

It does boggle the mind, but it seems that people believe they are "anonymous" electronically -- that is never the case, especially at work. I think maybe we should all take a deep breath, think...and step away from the "send" button.

David Benjamin said...

For some reason many of us still have this feeling of invinsibility when it comes to electronic correspondence.

Even after seeing how the former Mayor of Detroit got himself in hot water with all his steamy txt messages to his mistress, the problems continue.

Sad to say that for many, they'll have to get burned before realizing how dangerous their actions of irresponsible electronic messaging can be.

Anita said...

It seems we've let tech gadgets replace our common sense, and we need to take back that control before we end up ruining our professional and personal lives. Thanks for your comments.