In our interconnected era, it happens all the time. A snarky comment appended to an email from the boss, accidentally sent using “reply to all” instead of “forward.” A flirty text directed to the wrong person. Or, in the recent case of a BBC journalist, making headlines after an accidental tweet announcing the death of (still very much alive) Queen Elizabeth. Talk about a bad day!
Such mishaps make for funny stories—as long as they don’t happen to you. But even a minor incident can undermine how those around you perceive you and how much they trust your judgment. And especially in a professional setting, those perceptions and that trust are assets that are well worth protecting.
New avenues of communication have made life easier in many ways, but more complicated in others for business leaders. Online know-how is important enough to be taught in schools now at every level from elementary through college, and for the rest of us an occasional refresher course is never a bad idea. Here are some ways to make sure you stay on the good side of the Internet:
Use the front-page standard.
Among friends and family, we’re often a little more candid than we would be in a professional setting. Please think – whether it’s a strong opinion, a hard-edged statement, or a joke, remember the front-page standard: If you wouldn’t want to see it on the front page of the New York Times, don’t send it electronically. If there’s a funny or edgy comment you absolutely have to make, walk down the hall and say it in person or pick up the phone and call.
Never consider yourself anonymous.
If you’re ever tempted to hide behind a different identity or fake email address (which may call your character in to question), or to post to anonymous message boards, take heed: Unless you have world-class credentials in data security and encryption, you’re probably never fully anonymous, no matter how you log in or mask yourself.
Prune back email threads.
Getting a forwarded email that includes all the earlier emails in the thread is generally nothing more than an annoyance. But sometimes if you scroll down through all the “FYI” and “What do you think?” messages, you discover things you were never meant to see. Strip out any history that isn’t needed when you forward or reply.
Remember, everything’s connected.
Personal social media accounts may not feel tied to your professional presence, but it’s hard to separate the two. Just as in the realm of “real life,” it’s fine to loosen up—but treat everything you do on social media as public behavior. To be scrupulously safe, make sure that even private messages and emails meet the front-page standard—they could be hacked, or even copied by a recipient, and end up going beyond your intended audience.
Check and double-check.
Autocorrect may spare us all a great many typos, but it can increase the odds of accidentally sending something to the wrong person or mangling your meaning. Develop the habit of double-checking email address lines before you send. And take a moment to give whatever you’re sending or posting a quick proofread on screen, which can catch at least most of the typos and keep your message from appearing in one of those compilations of funny autocorrect errors.
There’s an old saying among carpenters: Measure twice, cut once. Like sawing a piece of wood, there’s no taking it back once you post or send. Few of us take all these precautions all the time. But the closer you come, and the more you instill good online habits, the safer you’ll be from unintended embarrassment—or worse.