When did congratulating someone on good news become so complicated?
A reader we're calling Piers works as the office manager for a company that provides office space and services to startup companies. Because these startups are small and Piers helps keep the place running on a day-to-day basis, Piers gets to know the employees of these startups pretty well. As the startups grow, many of them relocate to office space of their own.
Part of Piers' job is keeping careful track of the contact information for each of his company's clients. Even after the company leaves, the email addresses for them remain with Piers.
"One of our clients left last year," writes Piers, "but she has had some great success lately. I love congratulating current and former clients when they do something awesome."
Piers' desire to send some kind words someone's way tells me that he has good instincts to do something thoughtful for a former client. It may be a small gesture, but it seems gracious nonetheless.
But as Piers was writing an email to her, he wondered: "Is it in any way unethical for me to keep contacting these people now that they are no longer clients, and to keep using email addresses which I would not otherwise have?"
He points out that he is only looking to congratulate them and wish them continued success. "But it also feels a bit off because the only reason they use their email in the first place was as part of a business transaction." As far as Piers can tell, their email addresses are not public.
Piers is not directly soliciting new business from the former clients. Nor is he asking them for a job at their new location. He writes that all he wants to do is send a nice note acknowledging a recent milestone they achieved. His intention seems genuine and above board.
But, as Piers points out, the former clients and his company's current clients as well gave their email addresses and other contact information to the company, not to him personally. If Piers didn't have a close relationship with the former clients where he regularly exchanged personal emails, then any message he sends them takes advantage of the access he has to information his company owns.
Nevertheless, congratulating people for doing well is hardly something to condemn. Who doesn't enjoy receiving an email from an old acquaintance, a former employer or even a former landlord when they hear of our good fortunes?
Piers should go ahead and congratulate them, but before doing so, he should let the owners or supervisors at his company know he's reaching out. He should do this because it is the right thing to do. It also would be good for his manager not to somehow find out about such congratulatory emails and wonder if Piers is using the email addresses for other, less benign purposes.
If they sign off on his sending of the congratulatory email, Piers can then send the former client well wishes not only on his behalf but on behalf of his employer, too.
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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.