Sunday, March 10, 2019

What to do with information you're not supposed to know

The subject line of the email hinted at what followed in the message. "CONFIDENTIAL" in all capital letters, a colon, and a note that an announcement from a local nonprofit was to follow made it clear that the sender believed the recipient might be thrilled with the news.

As the email recipient read on (let's call him "Jerry"), he noted that he was being sent the news since he had been a generous donor to the nonprofit organization in the past. Jerry was also asked to keep the information confidential "for now" since it wasn't being announced to the world at large until later that day.

A draft of a press release followed with the details of a major transformative donation that had been made. As a past "generous supporter" of the organization -- and presumably one which the sender hoped would continue to be as generous in the future -- Jerry was being given a private preview of the news.

But Jerry could tell right away something was odd about him receiving the email. For one thing, Jerry had never donated anything, generous or otherwise, to the nonprofit. And for another the salutation to the email read "Dear Matthew." (We're calling him "Matthew" here. Suffice it to say, the salutation was not addressed to Jerry.)

Like many of us, Jerry regularly receives spam emails attesting to one thing or another that isn't true but which is meant to lure us in to some shady deal. Upon checking the details of the email, Jerry concluded this was not spam, but instead was likely one of several emails the sender had sent out to a list of past donors. Somehow, Jerry's email got mistaken for Matthew's and crossed wires ensued.

Jerry is torn about what to do. He figured he had at least four options. Option 1 is to delete the email and forget the whole thing ever happened. Option 2 is to share the email with some friends and colleagues he knows would find it interesting and likely would love getting the scoop before others knew about it. Option 3 is to post a note on one of his social media feeds highlighting the details which are to come. And option 4 is to reply to the sender to let him know of his errant ways.

It's not Jerry's fault that he came upon the information by accident, so the temptation to share it might prove alluring. He should fight the urge. Aside from glibly pointing out he knew something a few hours before others, all he would do by sharing the information would be to possibly embarrass the fellow who sent it. Hardly a noble goal. So, if he wants to be an up and up fellow, options 2 and 3 are out.

Jerry could simply delete the email. That's not only appropriate, but it takes the least amount of effort.

But if Jerry truly wants to set things right, he should reply to the sender, let him know he received the email intended for Matthew by mistake, and wanted the sender to know since it seemed important to him to get the news to Matthew.

The sender might be embarrassed about his error. But Jerry could rest easy knowing he did the right thing. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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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