Keep e-mails professional, avoid Harvard student’s misfortune

The “forward” e-mail option makes passing information on to others easy, but can also make it possible for controversial e-mails to end up in the inboxes of way more people than originally intended, as in the case of one unfortunate Harvard law student.

“I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent,” the student wrote in an e-mail discussing the genetic basis of intelligence.

That’s probably not an opinion you’d want to share even with close friends, but the incident might have stopped there if not for that handy “forward” feature. One of the intended recipients decided to forward it to members of the Harvard Black Law Student Association. From there, it was forwarded to Black Law Student Associations across the country, and the media picked up the story.

I bet that student is wishing she’d thought twice before hitting “send.” Especially because she is reported to be a candidate for a federal clerkship, and irate recipients of her e-mail are organizing efforts to prevent her from getting that position.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of e-mail exchanges as private conversations. But in theory, everyone with an e-mail address could be invited into your “private” conversation. Even one person hitting “forward” can start a domino effect, and soon your supposedly private e-mail is public property.

We’ve all made mistakes where we’ve sent e-mails to the wrong person, forwarded an e-mail to someone when we meant to hit “reply,” or mistakenly hit “send” before we’d finished writing the rest of the e-mail.

That’s why it’s so important to watch what you say in an e-mail. Unfortunately, e-mail doesn’t have an “edit – undo” feature. You can’t take back an e-mail back after it’s been sent.

Even hitting “reply all” can be dangerous. For example, imagine you’re having an e-mail conversation with a classmate about a group project. Your classmate sends you an e-mail asking questions about the project, and you write back with your answers – and a long, whiny complaint about how your professor assigned a ridiculous amount of work and how you can’t wait to be done with the class.

You hit “send,” and then realize that instead of simply hitting “reply,” you’d hit “reply all.” And your classmate copied your professor on the original e-mail, so your professor will now be able to read your angry rant about the class. Oops.

If you keep your e-mails respectful and professional, you won’t need to worry if they end up in the wrong inbox. There’s been lots of talk about the dangers of putting incriminating or embarrassing information on social networking sites, but e-mail can be even more hazardous to your future career prospects.

Even if an e-mail is meant to be sarcastic or funny, if it gets forwarded to others, it might not be forwarded in its original context. It’s better to take the safe route and remind yourself that every e-mail you send could potentially be read by your professors, relatives and employers.

Check over your e-mails before you send them, and remember the power of the “reply all” and “forward” features. Don’t jeopardize your future because of your inability to self-censor, like the Harvard Law student. One poorly worded e-mail can significantly damage your reputation.

Katie Broadwell can be reached at