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Uh-oh, I Hit Reply All!: The Perils of Sexy E-mail

2009 November 9

In a reminder to us all about the ease with which information can be sent in e-mail to unintended recipients, the sexually explicit conversation between two employees at Cornell University was “accidentally” sent campus-wide, Guest of a Guest reports and Inside Higher Ed confirms. Please note that the Guest of a Guest link includes the full conversation thread, and may not be appropriate for viewing at work.  It is unclear precisely who received the naughty e-mail exchange, but it is clear than it was a much wider distribution than intended.

I say “accidentally” because the whole situation doesn’t really make any sense.  Usually, these things happen because someone hits Reply All rather than Reply, and the message goes out to a larger group than intended.  In this case, there was a long, established conversation thread which “somehow” was e-mailed to everyone. The only way I can see that happening is to hit Reply, and then add the listserv address for the entire campus to the e-mail.  That implies some degree of purpose, although I also can’t imagine anyone wanting to share that conversation with anyone else.  We’ll never really know for sure.

The situation is made somewhat worse since each employee is married – to someone else.  Guest of a Guest was nice enough to censor their last names, but they did unkindly include photos of the two.  The fallout from this situation, both on the side of the administration having to deal with it and the frisky e-mailers themselves, will likely be unpleasant.

What should administration do?  Sexually explicit e-mailing is often against corporate and institutional e-mail policies, even if only under the heading of “for work purposes only.”

I’m also curious how such information travels and what the psychological impact is for both the ones sending and receiving this e-mail.  Remember, this e-mail will negatively affect more than just those that sent it.  In a traditional corporate setting, such a faux pas might be a constant distraction, triggering a loss of productivity and other counterproductive work behavior for several days as coworkers pause to gossip when they otherwise would not.  I also imagine it probably be more costly to small businesses, where interpersonal relationships are often tighter, than to large ones.  I wonder what research has been done thus far…

And finally, what’s the remedy to prevent this from happening again?  Better training on e-mail?  Better hiring practices?  Both?

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