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 Cookstr.com. "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 ABCNews.com, 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.
No Matter What You're Told, Assume You're Being Monitored Online
Companies use both computer programs and individuals to monitor e-mail, she said, and recent court cases show that the law is on the employers' side.
"Courts here in the U.S. have been consistent in upholding employers' right to monitor," she said. "Even if your boss says you're not being monitored, you should assume you're being monitored."
Some e-mail scanning software can be programmed to flag key words and phrases, such as four-letter curse words and even abbreviations like "WTF."
But Schwalbe said other programs, such as those used during the discovery phase of a legal proceeding, are even more sophisticated. Some can detect irregular e-mail patterns; others are even sensitive to suspiciously worded messages (those that lack nouns, for example).
"This all points to the fact that people are putting things on e-mail that they shouldn't put on e-mail," he said.
E-mail Is More Chatty, Less Thoughtful
People like to compare e-mail to letters, he said, but electronic correspondence really has more in common with telephone calls.
"They're being chatty. We're lured into this disinhibited state where we think we're talking and, in some real way, forget that we're writing," he said.
And, he added, given the daily load of e-mail many people have to contend with, it's even easier to throw in an off-color word, make a mistake or send an entirely regrettable e-mail.
If you start to feel the flush of an emotional e-mail or realize you're typing an open-to-interpretation complicated note, Schwalbe advised opting for a different form of communication.
"Just because someone sends you an e-mail doesn't mean you have to send an e-mail back," he said. "Be more thoughtful."