Sunday, August 21, 2016

Make sure you know where your email is going

How obligated are we to let people know when they've emailed you by mistake?

As he was walking home from work, J.L. came to a stoplight. He decided to check his smartphone for email while he was waiting. As he scrolled through, J.L. noticed that he'd been copied on an email that a distant cousin of his had written to her daughter.

"Should we invite [J.L.] to your wedding," the cousin asked her daughter. "He and his wife were very nice to us when we visited."

J.L. was certain that the email wasn't intended for him and he thought he would let it pass. But when he got home, he checked his email again and there among his email thread was a response from his cousin's daughter:

"If we invite him, do we need to invite his sister, too?"

J.L. thought the discussion was beginning to sound like they wanted to think about inviting him, but weren't crazy about the idea of inviting his sister. He remained convinced that his cousin and her daughter had copied him in error, but even in the replies, his name stayed on the routing list.

Before, when there was one email, he was fine just letting it pass and not alerting his cousin. But now that the discussion seemed like it might turn to one that included a more personal tone of who they might not want to invite to the wedding and why, J.L. believed it might be best to say something to his cousin.

He'd only met his cousin's daughter once when she was very young, so he had no expectations of being invited to her wedding. Since it was in a city different from the one in which he lived, he wasn't crazy about the idea of having to book a flight and hotel for the event anyway. Would alerting his cousin make her feel like they definitely should invite him now that he knows they were thinking about it?

J.L.'s predicament is yet another reason for each of us to be far more careful about what we send out in email and to whom we send it. There are many stories of employees hitting "reply all" to a received email and sending a snarky message that offends someone on the receiving end that the snark sender didn't even realize was on the recipient list.

J.L. is not obligated to alert his cousin that she inadvertently copied him on an email. She did not inadvertently disclose personal information that could do her or her daughter damage. Still, copying J.L. on an email in which they discuss whether he or his sister makes the wedding list cut could prove embarrassing to his cousin.

Given that the email discussion continued past the first errant message, the right thing for J.L. to do is to let his cousin know that she mistakenly copied him. If he wants to he can add a note about how kind it was for them to consider inviting him, but that given he didn't know the daughter all that well, he had no expectations of being invited. The right thing for the cousin and her daughter (and you too) to do is to take the time to make sure you're sending the email you want to send to the people you want to send it to. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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