E-mail contract is not worth the kilobytes
By Lucy Kellway
Published: June 5 2011 20:47 | Last updated: June 5 2011 20:47
This column may be illegal. In writing it, I am inviting Philips, the Dutch electronics company, to sue me – and I’m rather hoping it will. Then I would be the first person in history taken to court for disobeying the most annoying and most pointless legal paragraph ever drafted.
The contract I’m about to break is the one that sits at the bottom of almost every business e-mail. In simple terms, it says that if the e-mail isn’t addressed to you, you must delete it at once, notify the sender and not tell a soul. I’m not the first to ignore such a command, indeed it is flouted hundreds of thousands of times every hour – almost every time that anyone forwards anything at work.
The other day I received a message that was most definitely not intended for me, but was passed on by a reader who thought I might like it. It was written by Frans van Houten, the new chief executive of Philips and sent to all his 100,000 employees to tell them about a management initiative.
“We agreed a new set of values ... as they are better suited to unlock our full potential in a fast moving world,” he said. He explained that these new values “would replace the 4 D’s” – which turn out to be such dismal, dull, derivative and depressing things as “Delight customers” and “Develop people”.
He quoted Gandhi (who surely would never have uttered the words “Be the Change”, had he known just how many scores of dodgy management initiatives would be launched on the strength of them). He finished by inviting underlings to go with him on a “journey” named Accelerate! “We have asked the 200 leaders ... to own and drive Accelerate! ... Please join me and Accelerate! to win together.”
Immediately below this stirring sign-off came the normal disclaimer. It said the message was confidential, and “intended solely for the addressee(s). If you are not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any use, forwarding, dissemination, or reproduction of this message is strictly prohibited ... please contact the sender by return e-mail and destroy all copies of the original message.”
Rather than do as instructed, I have decided to follow the common law of the internet. This decrees that whenever you get a crass message, you must forward it to everyone in your address book, or post it on your blog, or, if you are fortunate to have such a thing, write about it in your newspaper column.
In so doing, I am at least notifying the sender, though maybe not in the way his disclaimer intended. My justification for passing the e-mail on is that the world needs to know when public companies are indulging in flabby management nonsense. I think it’s fair to bet that Accelerate! – despite the additional oomph that comes from the exclamation point – is not going to “unlock full potential” in any world, fast-moving or not.
Of course, Philips could now see me in court. If it does, I don’t think it’s going to win. I’ve consulted some experts who assure me that in European law it’s pretty much impossible to foist this sort of contract on someone unilaterally. Legal disclaimers on e-mails are not only unenforced but unenforceable – making one wonder why they are so popular. The only plausible explanation is that companies use them simply because others do; no one dares be odd one out.
Last week I got a short e-mail from someone who works at the French bank BNP Paribas with a long disclaimer that made the Philips one look restrained.
It started off by doing some legal defining of terms, explaining that message will hitherto be denoted by “message”. Having done this in English, it went on to do it in French as well.
Finally, after a whole series of heavy warnings given in both languages, it bossily instructs the recipients: “Please consider the environment before printing.”
This is a damned cheek. Anyone who elects to print out this e-mail (a decision is surely up to the recipient, not to the sender) is thus forced to waste a lot of additional ink and paper as these paragraphs are automatically and needlessly reproduced in hard copy.
I’m happy to report that e-mails sent from the FT system are neither bossy nor threatening, and come in just one language. Every e-mail finishes thus: “This e-mail was sent by a company owned by Pearson plc ... Registered in England and Wales with company number 53723”.
This is good for being brief, though less good for containing a numerical fact that I bet no one who has ever received an e-mail from me has ever found even slightly diverting. There is a way of making this automatic sign-off better and briefer still: do without it altogether.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.