The art of office e-mail war

They don't call it a "killer app" for nothing. E-mail is corporate culture's favorite new weapon.

Published May 9, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

"Rapidity is the essence of war," Sun Tzu writes in "The Art of War." "Take advantage of the enemy's unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots." It's a lesson that could just as well apply to corporate warfare as to the conventional battlefield. And it's one I learned the hard way.

It happened while I was a working at a large Internet start-up in the mid-1990s. My boss asked me to write a proposal for a partnership between our company and a major East Coast media firm. It was my chance to shine, perhaps even to earn a promotion.

I had just finished a first draft when a co-worker assisting me -- I'll call her "Joan" -- asked to see what I had written. So I e-mailed her a copy. The next thing I knew, she had forwarded my proposal, along with a note describing herself as the principal author, to the entire executive team managing the project.

I had been duped, and I felt humiliated. But I soon got my revenge. Later, while putting the finishing touches on the report, I got a call from Joan asking to see the updated version. "Sure," I said, and hung up the phone. I quickly finished and attached the report to an e-mail addressed to every VP and director I thought would be interested. This time it was clear that I was the one who had done all the work. I put Joan's name at the bottom of the distribution list and clicked "send." Game over.

It was my first experience with the down-and-dirty politics of corporate e-mail, a communications tool that to my mind perfectly suits the needs of those following Sun Tzu's timeless advice on taking your enemy by surprise.

Why e-mail? It's fast, simple to use, and offers the sender nearly immediate access to anyone on a corporate network. It's also readily available as more and more businesses get wired. "E-mail is becoming the dominant form of communication within companies," says Joyce Graf, vice president of e-mail for the Gartner Group, which estimates that of the more than 5.5 trillion e-mails sent worldwide last year, about half were business related.

Strategies for manipulating e-mail in the workplace run the gamut, from the carefully targeted attack -- blind copying someone's boss with incriminating information on a co-worker -- to what you might call "the Suicide Bomber," a disgruntled employee's company-wide flame designed to stir up trouble for his employer with little regard for his future reputation or financial status.

Each technique shares the common element of surprise. Sometimes the blow is fatal. Other times it's just a huge headache. Always, it happens very quickly.

The Passive-Aggressive Product Manager

Paul Devine, a San Francisco-based programmer, recalls several run-ins over e-mails he received from a product manager while working at Liquid Audio, a developer of secure software for distributing digital music.

The product manager wanted Devine, who was the company's director of Web development, to take on a job that he did not have time to do. When he explained this to her during a meeting, she acquiesced without comment, but he sensed something was wrong.

"I could tell she was irritated and annoyed, but she would never vent her frustration directly to me," he says. "Then I'd leave and she'd e-mail a project plan to my boss, the CEO and other executives. In it there would be several items attributed to me that I had specifically told her I wouldn't do."

Each time this happened -- and it happened several times -- Devine was forced into damage control mode. He scheduled meetings with his boss, his team, and the product manager herself to set the record straight. "Sometimes I would march in to her office and go ballistic," he says. "She would play dumb like she didn't understand, but I knew what she was doing."

Devine, it should be noted, isn't above using e-mail to his own ends. While working at MacWorld, the computer magazine, he once used it to successfully deflect a CEO's request for a project that he viewed as unnecessary.

"We can do what you want, but it will require us to change a line item in the budget," he wrote the CEO in a message that was copied to the chief financial officer. When the CFO wrote back hastily to protest any changes in the budget, the CEO withdrew his request. "I wasn't about to say no to the CEO, so I had to think of another strategy," says Devine.

A Tool for Guerrilla Warfare

Much has been said about the unintended consequences of e-mail, a subject inspiring countless articles by corporate communications experts on the fine points of e-mail etiquette. Less attention, however, is paid to the practice of using this so-called "killer app" to intentionally manipulate, smear, and expose one's adversaries on the corporate battlefield.

Wade Hyde, a communications consultant based in Dallas, says this may reflect the newness of e-mail as a business communications tool, but its application to political ends shouldn't come as a surprise.

"Guerrilla warfare in the corporate world has been around a long time," says Hyde. "What e-mail does is make it easier to fight those battles. Just punch a button and it's done."

Of course, e-mail is just a tool, and an incredibly useful one at that. Compare e-mail, for example, to the old inter-office memo, a cumbersome device used mainly by upper management to communicate major announcements to the rank and file. Each message usually went through several steps -- dictation, writing, editing -- before being delivered by hand to its recipients.

E-mail, in contrast, is quick and dirty. It can be sent from anywhere on the network, at all times of day or night, by a single person. It is generally not edited or, for that matter, proofread, and it doesn't require human intervention to reach its intended audience. As a result, it's much faster to create and distribute.

"Communications before e-mail was a much more synchronous process," says Steven M. Layne, founder and chairman of United Messaging, which outsources e-mail services to large corporations and government agencies. "It tended to be more one to one. I call you, we talk and you listen to me. Or we have a meeting. E-mail has fundamentally changed the physics of interpersonal communications. You write it, you send it, boom -- it's there."

Yet these same advantages -- speed, ease of use, asynchronicity -- can be exploited for less than honorable purposes.

The Phantom Employee

Several years ago, Cameron Brown, a communications consultant, saw how e-mail enabled a clever co-worker to pretend that he was working hard late at night, even though he was really out socializing with his friends.

"He was an utterly shameless self-promoter, but he was very crafty about it," says Brown, who worked at the time as an associate media director for NASDAQ in New York.

The co-worker routinely left early from work to meet friends for dinner. Later in the evening, he would come back to the office to send out a few e-mails.

"People would assume he had been working all that time, but he was basically just sending off e-mails," says Brown. "He was one of the lazier people there."

The Suicide Bomber

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of e-mail is the fact that it is so incredibly simple to use. With almost no effort, you can send a message to anyone from the CEO on down the corporate ladder, and you can do it from the privacy of your office or cubicle. This instant access has had a certain democratizing effect within companies, but minus the face-to-face contact it can also create the illusion of anonymity, emboldening the sender to take liberties and say in e-mail what he wouldn't say in person.

So it was for Russ Pitts, an employee at TechTV, a San Francisco-based television network, who sent a stinging e-mail to the entire company when he quit his job as associate producer in February.

"Boy how these past two years have flown by! It seems like only seven hundred and forty-five days since I first walked through these doors," his e-mail began. "Then, I was a relatively inexperienced young man, fresh off the bridge, with dreams of breaking into the fast, glittering world of Technology Television. Now, as you all are probably aware, I couldn't care less if the entire building spontaneously filled with eagle semen."

The e-mail went on to detail the many ways in which Pitts was happy to be leaving the company, which had suffered through waves of layoffs, canceled shows and other problems. "Looking back over all I've done here at TechTV, I truly don't think any of it would have been as mediocre as it was without the constant discouragement, confusion and the droning, incessant obnoxiousness of you, my fellow employees," he wrote. "Many the rosy fingered dawn has found me kneeling in front of the toilet, vomiting forth my meager breakfast at the thought of walking through these doors yet one more time."

He closed by telling other employees to "get out while you can." The message, said one fellow worker, "caused quite a stir around the office." It was eventually posted on, where it remains in one of several long threads of venomous message-board submissions regarding the company at the site's Super Happy Fun Slander Corner.

Pitts, who is now pursuing a career as a playwright in Boston, says he had been planning to leave TechTV for six months prior to giving notice. During that time, he was "boiling over" with frustration about his job, his boss, and what he perceived as the companys backstabbing corporate culture. At one point, he ended up in the hospital for a month with a stomach ailment from work-related stress.

Sending the e-mail was the last thing he did before leaving the building the day he resigned. "My hand was shaking when I clicked the send button. I was really nervous. I felt like I was confronting everybody in the company. It was as if I was on stage in front of all 600 people on the [corporate] network."

The Smoking Gun

The flipside of this access to anyone in a company is that e-mail creates a record of one's thoughts and actions that, in most cases, is permanent. An e-mail can thus become a smoking gun, an electronic paper trail that later comes back to haunt the sender.

A recent case in point is the group of Merrill Lynch analysts who allegedly admitted in e-mails that they had little faith in certain stocks that they were optimistically touting to investors. Those same analysts may now face fraud charges brought by New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, who has already publicly humiliated them by bringing the e-mails to light.

"You have to realize that every e-mail you write is evidence," says Suzanne Stefanac, an interactive television consultant. "Someone might use it to further their own ends. You have to be careful about what you say and what you mean to say."

That evidence can also get you fired. According to one longtime human resources director for various companies, e-mail is the first place that companies go when they want to find evidence to get rid of you. "I can't tell you how many times I went through the computer files of senior vice presidents," she says. "I wasn't comfortable with [the idea], but I was told, 'we have to get rid of somebody. We have to do it.'"

Ultimately, all this virtual conniving can have a devastating effect on the environment of networked companies, says Peter Lyman, a professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems.

"Networked organizations are built on trust," says Lyman. "E-mail can stretch or even destroy that level of trust that we need to work together."

The Stealth Attack

Perhaps the most dangerous abuse of that trust happens with the so-called bcc, or blind carbon copy, which allows the sender to e-mail copies of a correspondence to other people without the original recipient's knowledge.

The blind carbon copy is so widely despised and prone to misuse that some companies disable the function on their e-mail systems. However, companies are powerless to eliminate these kinds of stealth attacks. Even without the automatic bcc function, it's easy to manually forward a copy of the message after sending out the original.

"The blind copy is used extensively and very politically," says David Kaiser, CEO of RespondTV, a company that produces software for interactive television. He first noticed abuses of the bcc in 1994 when he became an executive at AOL, which by then had a full-blown e-mail culture, well before most other companies were using e-mail at all. Often, the blind carbon copy was used in conjunction with a reprimand sent in an e-mail.

"It was typically worded in a very constructive way, like you went a little too far in that discussion with so and so,'" Kaiser explains. "But then the note would be blind copied to that person's superior, to somebody in the legal department, and to somebody in the accounting department."

Kaiser, 48, has watched the evolution of e-mail in the workplace since the 1970s, when he worked at the NASA Ames Research Center. "Then it was used mainly as a collaborative tool, to share data with people all around the country. It wasn't used for casual conversation like it is now."

Now, he says, e-mail is used more like the telephone, a means to communicate what you might normally say to someone in person. As a result, it frequently -- and sometimes intentionally -- gets stretched beyond its limitations.

At AOL, the e-mail torrent got out of control. "Nobody was talking to anybody," he says. "They were just sending e-mails all the time. You got hundreds of them a day. There was no way even to read them all."

Ultimately, he predicts there will be a swing back to more face-to-face conversation at companies as the downsides of e-mail and other electronic communications, like instant messaging, become more apparent.

"I would scream bloody murder if someone tried to take away my e-mail," Kaiser says. "But at the same time I realize there are some dark aspects to it. It can have a very divisive effect on corporate culture."

By David Miller

David Miller is a freelancer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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