Generally speaking, emails are forever. Once sent, no matter how assumedly disposable, emails live on. (Just ask some of the Sony executives who realized their theoretically private comments were anything but.)
That's why you take care. You reflect and revise and delete before you hit send. By its very nature, email gives you the time to make sure your better instincts prevail.
That might not be so true where chat rooms like Slack, HipChat, Campfire are concerned. Communication is rapid-fire. Conversations tend to be less professional and more off the cuff.
Chat rooms are like informal hallway gatherings: it's easy to talk, gossip, chatter... and then go back to your office and put your professional hat back on.
Case in point: Gawker CEO John Cook recently testified regarding locker room humor exchanged during a Campfire chat about the Hulk Hogan sex tape the site posted in 2012. (Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, is suing Gawker for $100 million for posting a sex tape he claims was made without his knowledge. An edited version of the video remained on the site for approximately six months until a court ordered its removal.)
A transcript of the chat makes for interesting -- albeit NSFW -- reading, if only because it reveals the difference in how many people tend to view chat room communications compared to email.
Would the same comments have been exchanged via email?
I doubt it, if only based on personal experience. Inc. uses Slack as a communication tool for editors and columnists, and I've made jokes in that chat room I would never make in an email. (My jokes weren't racist or offensive or rude -- or probably even funny -- but still.)
Granted, what you write in a chat room can't be as easily shared without your permission, but messages can nonetheless be retrieved.
And that leaves us with at least three takeaways from Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker.
One, never make a sex tape. (No one wants to see me naked, including me, so I'm definitely safe there.)
Two, whatever you write, regardless of the medium, always write as if everyone in the world might eventually see it. Make sure your employees do the same. Set the example and then enforce that example.
And three, remember that in this and everything else, behaving professionally is always the best approach, regardless of whether or not what you write could come back to haunt you... because character is what you do even when no one else will ever know.