Be careful what you commit to paper, especially if you’re at work.
Sir Kim Darroch resigned Wednesday as the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S. after Boris Johnson, the front runner in the race to be the next prime minister of the U.K., failed to support him during a televised debate on British television. “I alone will decide who takes important and politically sensitive jobs,” Johnson said during the debate.
Darroch’s days were numbered as ambassador. “Since the leak of official documents from this Embassy there has been a great deal of speculation surrounding my position and the duration of my remaining term as ambassador,” Darroch wrote in a letter to the Foreign Office. “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”
‘There is no filter. And we could also be at the beginning of a downward spiral, rather than just a rollercoaster: something could emerge that leads to disgrace and downfall.’
His resignation came after four days of controversy in the wake of his leaked cables. In those memos, the contents of which were released Sunday, Darroch described the Trump administration as “diplomatically clumsy and inept” and went on to say that he had doubts whether the Trump White House would become “substantially more normal.” The memos were first published by the Mail on Sunday.
As is the nature of diplomatic dispatches, Darroch was extremely candid in his memos, and he obviously never expected his cables to be seen by Trump himself. “The stories about White House knife fights are, we judge, mostly true: multiple sources and confirmed by our own White House contacts,” he wrote, according to one leaked document. “This is a uniquely dysfunctional environment.”
He took aim at Trump personally, and criticized the president for his comments on London Mayor Sadiq Khan. (Last month, Trump called Khan a “stone cold loser.”) Darroch wrote: “There is no filter. And we could also be at the beginning of a downward spiral, rather than just a rollercoaster: something could emerge that leads to disgrace and downfall.”
Others should learn about getting political in work emails or criticizing colleagues. They can be forwarded, captured in screen shots and tweeted, or printed out and attached to the leg of a carrier pigeon, if the fancy takes a colleague who decides they should be leaked.
Using a personal email account on work servers also leaves those emails open to being subpoenaed by authorities and more easily hackable by third parties, experts say, and anything downloaded by a personal email account onto a company server may also be stored on that server.
Even Slack, the workplace online messaging forum, is not immune. In 2017, Slack said it had detected and patched a vulnerability that would have given hackers full access to chat histories, shared files and other features. The vulnerability was discovered by security company Detectify and resolved before any information was leaked, Slack said.
The First Amendment protects free speech and, in President Trump’s case, negative comments about third parties, but it may not protect your job if you do or say anything that is contrary to the company’s values, even if it’s a joke. Leaked emails may also prevent you from getting your dream job. (Just ask Hillary Clinton.) In employment-at-will states, employees without a contract can be fired without cause.
Security experts say most Americans should be more concerned with their company’s IT department reading their emails. “Assume that your life will be an open book to your employer,” Adam Levin, co-founder of cyber-security firm CyberScout, previously told MarketWatch. “There are some companies that will back up anything done on their server and, as part of their company policy, monitor what’s done on their system, whether you use work email or not.”
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Methods for tracking emails over company servers have become very sophisticated. Email-scanning programs like Websense and Spector Pro that scan for spam can also search for expletives or other keywords, experts say. In 2012, trader Greg Smith resigned publicly from Goldman Sachs and alleged that five different managing directors referred to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal email.
The company scans employee emails for terms like “muppets,” CEO Lloyd Blankfein reportedly said during a conference call shortly after Smith’s public resignation. “We are required by law to maintain records of communication inside the firm in a searchable format,” a spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs GS, +1.37% said at the time. Media company Bloomberg has said its been monitoring emails for profanity for more than a decade.
Security experts say most Americans should be more concerned with their company’s IT department reading their emails. Assume that your email life is an open book at work.
Know your audience: Memos that are designed to be circulated can go horribly wrong, too. In 2017, Google GOOGL, +0.75% GOOG, +0.79% fired James Damore, a software engineer who wrote a 10-page memo describing the Alphabet Inc. unit’s approach to diversity as “authoritarian” and said women, on average, had “higher levels of neuroticism.” Some called the memo tone deaf and even misogynistic.
Damore subsequently told the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. that he should have known better and prefers face-to-face communication. He also said that he has “high-functioning autism,” which may play a role in the way he communicates. “My biggest flaw and strength may be that I see things very differently than normal,” he said. “I’m not necessarily the best at predicting what would be controversial.”
Social media is also a corporate minefield of ill-chosen words. Last year, the ABC DIS, +0.83% reboot of “Roseanne” was canceled when its eponymous star Roseanne Barr was fired after writing a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser in Barack Obama’s White House. Barr apologized, but the damage was done. The series was subsequently retooled without Barr as “The Conners.”
Also last year, Mary Bono, who’d taken over as interim president and CEO of the USA Gymnastics Federation, resigned after just four days in that role after a tweet came to light in which she criticized Nike, a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor, and appeared to throw shade at the company’s advertising campaign featuring football player Colin Kaepernick. The NFL quarterback has made a point of kneeling during the national anthem before games in a show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Next to a photo of her Nike NKE, +0.72% shoe, Bono wrote, “Playing in a charity golf tournament raising money for our nation’s Special Forces operators and their families. Unfortunately had these shoes in my bag. Luckily I had a marker in my bag too…” (The tweet showed the Nike logo being obscured.)
Perhaps most infamously, Anthony Weiner, the former Democratic congressman from New York, resigned in June 2011 after sending a sexually explicit photo of himself to a college student over Twitter. In 2017, he began a 21-month prison sentence for sexting with a minor. He has since been released.
At first, Weiner claimed that his account was hacked. While he lost his $174,000-a-year job — the standard salary for members of the House and the Senate — he walked away with the equivalent of around $1.2 million in retirement benefits after a dozen years in office. He later expressed remorse: “These destructive impulses brought great devastation to family and friends, and destroyed my life’s dream of public service,” he said.
Even posting photographs or retweeting someone else’s tweet can be enough to get fired. Despite repeated warnings, people still get fired for sending photos or posts. The immediacy and informality of sites like Twitter and Facebook’s FB, -0.38% Instagram FB, -0.38% can become their greatest dangers, experts say.
In fairness to American workers, it’s a double-edged sword: They’re often encouraged to tweet and maintain active presences in social media. And employees, particularly those who are in the public eye, are often judged by how many followers they have on Twitter when they apply for jobs. The role social media plays in workers’ lives is “not always clear-cut,” the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., found.
Darroch, a onetime head of the press office at the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, knows all too well the value of a well-crafted message. He may now, however, wish he had chosen his own words more carefully.
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