Don't Curse Now: E-mails Monitored by Employers for Language

You'd think we'd have figured it out by now: When it comes to e-mail, unless you're prepared to see your words plastered across the front page of a newspaper, just don't do it.

But, despite a steady stream of electronic scandals, the list of the world's worst e-mails continues to grow.

This week, Goldman Sachs made headlines for banning curse words in work e-mails. According to the Wall Street Journal, the financial giant, which suffered major e-mail headaches in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, told employees filtering softwware would stop them from using profanities in e-mails.


Even creative substitutes (for instance, with asterisks in place of four-letter words) are out of bounds, the report said.

But Goldman Sachs is hardly the only company to crack down on corporate e-mail. And as employers become more vigilant about monitoring what goes in and out of company servers, e-mail policy and etiquette experts say it wouldn't hurt employees to think a bit more carefully before they hit "send."

"We have come some distance and we are getting better at this, both individually and in our companies… but, boy, do we have a long way to go," said Will Schwalbe, the co-author of "Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do it Better," who has since started "This technology came on us so quickly and so massively that, as individuals and companies, we just weren't prepared for it."

Even If You Don't Swear, E-mails Can Come Back to Bite You

It's a good sign that companies like Goldman Sachs are getting serious about e-mail, he said, but controlling profanity is just a start.

"People shouldn't be under illusions that just because you don't use swear words, you won't get caught doing stupid things on e-mail," he said.

When contacted by, a Goldman Sachs spokesman said its e-mail surveillance program isn't new but has just been "broadened."

"We've always had a policy about the appropriate use of language and appropriate behavior, more generally. That policy was in place and has been in place for a long time and is unchanged," he said. "What we have done is updated the surveillance program, much like dictionaries get updated."

E-mail Is Electronic DNA

He declined to elaborate on the reasons behind the expanded policy and potential consequences for online offenders. He said only that e-mails containing certain four-letter words and other kinds of profanity would be flagged and sent to compliance officers.

But experts say companies are stepping up their electronic surveillance programs as they become more aware of possible legal ramifications.

"E-mail is the electronic equivalent of DNA evidence," said Nancy Flynn, director of the ePolicy Institute in Columbus, Ohio and author of "Writing Effective E-Mail."

According to a 2009 survey conducted by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute, 24 percent of the companies surveyed had e-mails subpoenaed and 9 percent of the companies went to court to battle a lawsuit specifically triggered by an e-mail.

An electronic misfire can also bring an individual's career to a grinding halt, she said. According to the same 2009 survey, 26 percent of companies said they had fired an employee for an e-mail violation. Chief among those violations was inappropriate language, Flynn said.

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