The ethics of all-staff emails

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Earlier this year a leaving email an advertising executive sent to all staff on his last day went viral as a result of its accusations and salacious gossip. Rebecca Doodson assesses the ethical implications of airing your office laundry in an all-staff email

In September we saw the effects of a leaving email sent by a disgruntled employee of a media agency go viral. In the email, Kieran Allen accused his manager of bullying, unfair treatment and of having sex in the office with a female colleague.

He signed off the email by saying ‘as long as the truth is out there, that’s all I can do’. In terms of professional ethics it raises a number of questions about whether this is really the best outlet for expressing opinions.

The perils of a leaving email

I’m sure most people have been on the receiving end of a colleague hitting ‘send to all’ on their last day in the office and sending the inevitable leaving email. Some are rapidly rattled off as the employee is heading out the door to pastures new, whilst others are well-composed and thought-out, mentioning what they have loved and/or loathed about the company and their colleagues.

The combination of excitement about a new position or displeasure about leaving their employment, combined with an attitude of ‘well, I’m never going to see most of these people again’, liberates some into sharing thoughts, experiences and opinions which they may previously have been too restrained to mention.

In this digital age of instant communication and spell-check it is all too easy to press ‘send’ without re-reading, or even thinking much about what you have written. There is no cooling off period; you can write what you think and your colleagues can be reading it a few seconds later.

Allen seemed to be trying to do a good deed by exposing a boss that he felt treated people unfairly and acted inappropriately. However, did he stop and think about what impact his words would have? Whilst the name of his boss was initially kept under wraps for legal reasons, Allen’s name was splashed all over media reports and social networking sites.

How all-staff emails can come back and bite you

What impression does that make for his next employer? Will they see him as a responsible employee who was doing the right thing? Or will they interpret his very public outburst to be a liability? So far, the jury seems to be out, with comments ranging from lauding Mr Allen’s ‘courage’ and ‘honesty’, to some targeting his lack of loyalty.

The impartial observer may simply believe whatever damage Mr Allen has done has only been done to himself.  However, the name of the company he works for has been published. His negativity is directly aimed at one individual, but the impact of his email will also affect the company as a whole.

Ethics and AAT

Consider if Allen was an AAT member working as an accountant. As a member of a professional body there are checks and balances in place to ensure he acts professionally and does not do anything that may bring the profession into disrepute. This includes protecting the reputation of his employer/clients, himself and the Association.

For example, AAT’s Code of Professional Ethics sets out five fundamental principles for acting ethically, one of which is objectivity and another confidentiality. By releasing such a hot-headed email to the rest of the company, Allen may have compromised his objectivity by allowing a personal conflict to override his business judgment.

Additionally, he has disclosed information which may well have been confidential, for example HR issues following his return to work after stress-leave, as well as personal information about a colleague.

Additionally, should any of the allegations against his boss turn out to be true, and perhaps already under investigation, by sending an email to the whole company airing this dirty laundry the whistle has been well and truly blown.

Deal with issues through proper channels first

It begs the question; why weren’t these issues dealt with through the proper channels rather than in a scathing email sent to the entire workforce? It seems as though these concerns could (and should) have been raised with HR, or another manager. Although publicly accusing the boss had a very obvious impact, using the proper reporting structure would have had more productive results.

Allen’s email states: ‘this is my truth to you all’. However, I suspect he is starting to regret not keeping that truth to himself. Whether you think he is a hero or a villain, this situation goes to show that acting in accordance with professional ethics doesn’t end when the office closes.

Rebecca Doodson is a Senior Conduct & Compliance Officer at AAT.

Rebecca Doodson is AAT's former Senior Conduct and Compliance Officer.

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