Watch out for that email

Personal emails on the government job have landed employees in hot water, on the street, in court and in jail.

Isn't it amazing what people will send through their work email accounts? We recently reported on a small town mayor who emailed at work with her in-office lover. She lost her job. And there are many more stories. The Washington Post's Stephen Barr relates a few in Thursday's Federal Diary.

A lawyer at the Small Business Administration received and sent more than 100 e-mails through his government computer in support of the Green Party in California. A federal board has ordered his firing.

A former chief of staff at the General Services Administration traded e-mails with lobbyist Jack Abramoff . Prosecutors used the e-mails to link the two, and a federal jury convicted the ex-government official of lying and obstructing justice.

A recent audit by the inspector general for tax administration found ... a large percentage of chain letters, jokes and pictures that, while harmless, increased the risk of computer virus infections, the report said. Other e-mails contained hate speech and sexual content or facilitated commercial activities, such as outside employment.

Scott Bloch , the head of the federal Office of Special Counsel, told Barr that violating agency rules on email use - which do include a humane amount of time for taking care of personal matters while at work - can land employees in hot water or on the street.

In the federal sector, Bloch's office has brought cases against public employees who have been accused of violating the Hatch Act, a law that restricts certain partisan activities by government workers. In some of the cases, e-mail served as evidence of electioneering or advocating for a candidate.

"It's pretty well understood that you can't come to work [in a federal office] wearing a button for a candidate," Bloch said. "Why is it any different to send an e-mail to several employees?"

And unlike water cooler talk, off-color email never loses any punch in the retelling or gains any mitigating "context" - it just bounces around, offending more and more people.

Brad Phillips , founder of Phillips Media Relations, recommends that employees have co-workers look at e-mails before hitting the send button.

"In a large organization like the government, if you are reliant on e-mail because it is the medium of choice, before you fire off that e-mail to hundreds of people, have a couple of people in the office take time to parse it and to look for anything that can be taken out of context . . . to make sure there is nothing in the e-mail that could be read negatively," he said. "Ask them to try to take it out of context, and if they can't, then it is ready to be sent out."

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