I love email. It's my preferred method of communication for many things -- it builds a record, it documents the entire conversation, and it doesn't allow for interruptions. I'll send you an email when I have time, and you send one back when you have time. But, the very thing that makes email fabulous can also make it a pitfall. There are things you should probably never, ever say, but you should really never, ever, ever write them in an email.
1. That candidate is too fat/gay/black/white/whatever.
Remember, emails are discoverable in a lawsuit. Additionally, people have a bad habit of accidentally sending confidential emails to the wrong person. You should never consider any of the above when hiring, so documenting anything that even hints at such a consideration can land your company in hot water. While weight isn't a protected class in most places, it is in some, and regardless, the important question is, can the person do the job?
2. Jane applied for FMLA -- you know, Friday-Monday leave?
The Family Medical Leave Act allows employees in some situations to take what is known as "intermittent leave." This allows them to take leave for doctor's appointments or other things on an as needed basis, rather than taking the leave in huge chunks. Anyone who has administrated this has seen that a surprising number of flare-ups and appointments seem to occur on Fridays and Mondays. Calling FMLA a "get out of jail free card" or other joking about it can be enough for a court to find your company guilty of FMLA interference. You don't want that.
3. When is John going to retire?
While this can be a totally logical question -- John is getting up there in years, and you'd like to be prepared to fill his role when he does leave -- asking it can run afoul of the law. Anyone over 40 is in a protected class, and you can't discriminate against them based of age. When you start asking questions about people's ages and when they are going to leave, it looks like you want that old fogey gone. And no, replacing a 65-year-old with a 55-year-old doesn't get you off the hook for age discrimination.
4. Have you seen the new employee? She's so hot.
Ahh, nice chatter between co-workers. It's totally harmless until it isn't. What happens when you accidentally send that to the wrong person? What happens when that employee claims sexual harassment for something unrelated and that email comes out? How are you going to explain to your new colleague that you respect her ideas when she's seen this email?
5. Cancer is so expensive!
While this is totally true, when you start talking about the costs of cancer in conjunction with an employee who has it (or some other expensive medical problem), not only do you look like a jerk, you look like someone who is discriminating against someone who has cancer. Let's say your employee with cancer also happens to be a terrible worker and you wish to terminate her for poor performance. When she sues, and her lawyer presents your emails about how expensive her treatment is, what do you think a jury is going to think?
6. Anybody who would support presidential candidate X is an idiot.
While being a member of a particular political party is not a protected class, saying things like this can build hard feelings within an office. Yes, companies often donate to particular candidates -- that's fine. But keep in mind that not all your employees feel exactly the same way. You don't need to share political beliefs in email to be good a worker -- even if you truly think candidate X is the worst choice ever.
7. Hey, look at this NSFW picture/website!
Don't use your company computer or your company email to send inappropriate pictures, even after hours. Just don't. While most IT departments don't monitor every email and attachment, they certainly can. People are still fired for looking at porn on the company computer. You're not immune from this.
8. I need to find a reason to fire Jane. Can you start digging?
There are plenty of employees that drive managers up the wall, and technically almost all employees in the United States are at-will employees, which means you can fire them for any reason at any time as long as the reason doesn't violate the law. So, in other words, you can fire a pregnant woman but you cannot fire a woman for being pregnant. However, when you decide you want to get rid of Jane but have no documentation on why you should, and then you start pulling things together to build a case, it looks like a sort of illegal discrimination. It doesn't have to actually be illegal to look illegal. So, either be honest in your correspondence -- "I want to fire Jane because her personality grates on my nerves. Can we do that?" -- or start keeping track of Jane's flaws, and then fire her. Remember, though, if you're dinging Jane for coming in late, you'll need to ding John too, or else you may be subject to a discrimination claim.
9. We can't hire that person. She's super religious, and she'll want every weekend off!
This may or may not be true. If your business is a weekend-heavy business, it may not be reasonable to accommodate an employee who needs every Saturday or Sunday off, but you need to talk about it, and you need to make sure it's not reasonable. Abercrombie and Fitch found out the hard way that making assumptions about a candidate's religion can take you all the way to the Supreme Court.
10. His accent is too strong.
This might be a legitimate complaint if the job is as a company spokesperson or call- center employee. But if the job doesn't involve a lot of public speaking, what you're looking at here is a possible case of discrimination based on national origin. The funny thing about accents is, you get used them, and someone who was hard to understand when you first meet becomes easier to understand with time. Plus, your accent probably sounds funny to the job candidate. Remember, the most important question is, "Is this the best person for the job?" If the answer to that is yes, you can take the time to listen carefully to an accent.