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Killing your career with e-mail

commentary Melinda Bird and Katrina Nugent must today be cursing the 'reply all' and 'forward' functions on their work e-mail accounts. The two secretaries' recent catty exchange over e-mail at Sydney law firm Allens Arthur Robinson has reportedly cost them their jobs and earned each of them a berth in the e-mail hall of infamy alongside a steadily growing number of other unfortunates.

commentary Melinda Bird and Katrina Nugent must today be cursing the 'reply all' and 'forward' functions on their work e-mail accounts.

The two secretaries' recent catty exchange over e-mail at Sydney law firm Allens Arthur Robinson has reportedly cost them their jobs and earned each of them a berth in the e-mail hall of infamy alongside a steadily growing number of other unfortunates.

The exchange, which kicked off with an icy query from Nugent about the whereabouts of the ingredients of a ham and cheese sandwich, quickly escalated to a series of trite but highly entertaining barbs about intelligence, ability to hold onto boyfriends and the like.

Allens reportedly reacted by sacking both of them as the e-mail exchange -- forwarded to people outside the firm -- spread like wildfire throughout the Sydney central business district and beyond. (Allens today declined to confirm the reports, saying only in a statement it had "no comment to make on internal employment matters". However, it added that "employees have been reminded of the appropriate use of e-mail as a result of an unfortunate e-mail exchange last week. The e-mail exchange serves as a salutary lesson to all organisations and individuals about the potential consequences of inappropriate use of corporate e-mail and intranet services".)

From your writers' perspective, sacking either or both over the exchange itself seems pretty harsh -- it seemed at worst to warrant a rebuke from their immediate manager. However, it would be interesting to see what happens to anyone other than those two who may have forwarded the e-mail outside the Allens recipient list, which seems to be the greater crime. (Some reports today claim Allens lawyers were responsible for doing so).

As they walk down to Centrelink (hopefully not to the same office at the same time), the two women can at least take consolation from the fact they are in good company when it comes to those whose electronic messages have caused them personal or professional damage.

That list includes highly-regarded Boeing chief executive Harry Stonecipher, whose series of indiscreet e-mails to a company employee he was having an affair with played a crucial role in his resignation and Tony Blair spinmeister Alistair Campbell, who inadvertently sent a profanity-laden e-mail from his BlackBerry device to a journalist rather than a colleague.

E-mail may also yet harm a number of Telstra executives, who have been forced to hand a number over to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission investigators looking into possible breaches of corporations law involving the telecommunications heavyweight over the last few days.

Despite these cautionary tales and others like them, you can bet that millions of missives breaching the rules and protocols of business communications are still being sent or forwarded daily from work e-mail accounts or instant messaging services.

The simple fact is that, regardless of warnings from management, human resources or the information technology department, many people continue to respond to electronic messages in the same way and with the same immediacy and lack of discretion as they do a verbal communication.

However, some will now have heard the message loud and clear. You can bet any discussion of the secretaries' situation at Allens today will be done at the pub and not over e-mail.

What do you think? Have you sent any e-mails that could come back to haunt you? Was Allens' reported punishment too harsh? E-mail us at edit@zdnet.com.au or use the talback facility and let us know.