Someday, executives will be forced to learn the words of the long-gone Boston politician Martin Lomasney: "Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink." But today is not that day, as evidenced by the shocking--shocking--revelation in The Wall Street Journal that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may have tied himself to dastardly privacy practices in emails.

It's all part of a Federal Trade Commission investigation that supposedly got hold of these documents.

Facebook is operating under a 2012 consent decree with the agency related to privacy, and the emails sent around that time suggest that Mr. Zuckerberg and other senior executives didn't make compliance with the FTC order a priority, the people said.

The Journal hasn't seen the emails, reporting that sources only described the documents to them. Maybe it's all a big misunderstanding, right? I tried to reach Facebook and haven't heard back yet, but the Journal got a couple of responses:

"We have fully cooperated with the FTC's investigation to date and provided tens of thousands of documents, emails and files. We are continuing to work with them and hope to bring this matter to an appropriate resolution," a Facebook spokesperson said on Tuesday in a statement. On Wednesday, after publication of this article, the company sent an additional statement, saying: "At no point did Mark or any other Facebook employee knowingly violate the company's obligations under the FTC consent order nor do any emails exist that indicate they did."

Of course not. Just because there's been an apparent cavalier attitude toward individual privacy at the company for years doesn't mean anyone in management knew or approved, whether actively or tacitly.

Sorry, just had a choking fit.

In a way, we should be thankful for the indelible traces emails leave, given the number of times they provide evidence of serious wrongdoing. Emails today are the audio tapes of the Watergate era, only without an 18-and-a-half-minute gap. Engineers, scientists, managers, lawyers--people up and down the line of training, experience, and responsibility step into this time and again. Folks who should know better think a deleted email is gone forever.

The common way to take the Lomasney quote is to avoid any tangible evidence of what you do. That's impossible, especially if you're running a company. You need evidence, at least internally, of conversations, decisions, and plans. There is no way to seriously claim  human beings can keep everything in their head and still remain functional and efficient.

Also, taking Lomasney in that way, even if he actually meant it, is bad. It becomes an excuse for wrong-doing and stupidity. Instead, try a different twist. Before you send that email, save the memo, or otherwise immortalize your thoughts in some tangible form, take a minute. Is this something you would want others to see and then consider as an embodiment of your attitude and character? Or, perhaps, as evidence in a trial of your connection to some action that you really should have known was questionable?

Think about what you put your name to. Not just in emails, but words of all kinds, images, and actions. To become a better business leader or human being, it is necessary to pay attention to what you communicate, which means considering what you plan and do. If it's not something that you'd want your name publicly associated with, better think twice about doing it.

Published on: Jun 12, 2019
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of