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I’ve been working in HR for a long time now.  Privacy is key to so many things we do.  Not only in HR, but in our organizations. This has been something drilled into my brain since my early years working in human resource information systems (HRIS).  I was responsible for entering all salary increases, severance information, next review dates, performance review ratings, and the list goes on.  I had to be on my toes and be aware of the data I entered, who I shared it with, and how I tracked the data.  It was confidential.  Period.

Today I was stunned.  5 minutes before a team meeting, I read an email that contained my salary information.  It was my most recent pay statement, sent to me in response to a question I had sent to payroll.  However, the question was in regards to an employee I was trying to help and not myself.  My salary information was shared with me, the person I was asking the question for, and my entire team. Yes, even those that report to me.

The original email was from an employee, asking about a particular deduction on their pay statement.  They sent it to me and copied the HR team. I don’t have that information, so I summarized the need and forwarded it to payroll, copying the employee and my team- making sure everyone was on the same page.    Unfortunately, the email was not read correctly and a response was rushed out.  It was the wrong response.  Even after I sent a note that went something like this, “Oh my gosh. I realize mistakes can happen, but seriously?”  the payroll person still was unsure of what had happened…until they read the email a THIRD time.  Seriously?

So, while there’s nothing I can do now, I thought it was time for a reminder…about how privacy can be breached, through email.

1. Know Your Audience.

  • When forwarding an email, be sure to summarize the email thread very clearly so the recipient is fully aware of the request. Typing FYI is not always enough. You may also consider changing the subject line to re-focus the context.
  • We are in such a hurry to clear our inbox, emails get forwarded and context can be lost.  You may be forwarding an email from HR to another department.  Will they understand the context of the previous conversation threads? And let’s face it, we don’t like to read through 10 threads to find what we’re looking for.

2. Read the Email

  • Skimming along can be awesome!  It saves time!  BUT, we can lose so much of the message without realizing it.  Take the time to read the email and answer accordingly.  It’s your job to be thorough and efficient.  Especially when it involves personally identifiable information.

3.  Who’s Who?

  • Have you looked at your “To” and “CC” headings?  If not, you could be sending stuff to the wrong people.  Just because those individuals were on the original email thread does NOT mean they are meant to be there or should be there any longer.  Who are these people and what role do they play? If you don’t know who someone is, ASK.  Before you forward, know who’s who.

This may seem simple.  That’s because it IS simple.  We are way too busy and it’s the little things that we miss.  These little things can cause big problems. Don’t rush your way into an avoidable mistake.  Your credibility is on the line.