Do we use email in an ethical way?

While e-mail overload is undeniably a problem, is it also an ethical problem. The way we use e-mail raises two ethical questions: how we treat each other and how we treat common resources. 

Too few of us ask ourselves if our message contains a reasonable demand to make on someone else's time. The failure of senders to think about this question increases the need for receivers to spend time determining which among the large volume in their inbox represents a legitimate claim on their time, attention and mental/emotional energy.

As Nobel laureate Herbert Simon has said . . .  “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” 

Our behavior as senders also raises the issue of how we treat common or organisational resources, such as software, servers and storage media. Garret Hardin's article on 'The Tragedy of the Commons' highlights the point that where there is little cost to each individual to use the common resource (ie: to send e-mail), they tend to overuse that resource until it is rendered virtually ineffective.

However, while most of us would welcome being able to send and receive fewer messages, getting people to change their poor or excessive e-mailing habits is tough. Most people are reluctant to do so in an environment where sending e-mail is too often equated with working hard. An organisation may say that it wants to reduce e-mail overload, but there is often an unintended message that sending lots of e-mail will advance your career. 

But this view should be adjusted. It's the ability to send a good, concise, informative e-mail when, and only when, it is relevant (and use other communications tools when it isn't) that identifies a clear communicator and should be a factor when considering promotion.

See the article by Miriam Schulman for a fuller account of this issue.

All the best!

Steuart G. Snooks