Email delegates – the challenges and risk of private & confidential email conversations

A good part of my career has been in Human Resources (HR) working with executive teams. Here’s a bit of a rant from my view of the world, about some of the challenges with email delegates. Great concept – but has some holes. I have always felt uncomfortable that email delegates have access to the sensitive information and confidential conversations I have with my colleagues.  I frequently avoided communicating important information on the fly by email or blackberry because I knew that someone other than the intended recipient had access to the email. And picking up the phone and calling 7 members of the executive team is never feasible – particularly on weekends or after business hours.  So I have to admit that communication was impeded and stifled, and sometimes fell through the cracks. My personal view is that an assistant’s seniority or professionalism is not under attack here. An assistant is human and can negatively react to information they are often not equipped to understand.  And the executive has in-the-know team members to discuss the situation with. Assistants don’t, making it naturally challenging for them to refrain from sharing the information with close co-workers or family members.  To expect them to, may not always be realistic. In my HR roles, I inevitably discussed terminations of individuals or organizational lay-offs with the executive team by email.  In order to secure private conversations, we had no choice but to exchange our private email addresses to engage in discussion.  In some cases, the termination was for the head of the IT department who would also have access to all corporate email communication (Yes, it’s true.  Bottom line is that IT folks have access to all emailed communication sitting on the server. Whether they read it or not is not the point. The point is simply that all emails are available to IT staff, unless a corporate security policy and technical features exist that prevent this capability). Executives also have to be ‘talked off a ledge’ regularly by HR (who knew!) and some of these private discussions occur on email. I have very often exchanged private email conversations with executives with email delegates, by using our private email addresses. Doesn’t it seem counter-intuitive that in order to secure a private conversation, an executive team has to go outside corporate email? There are many other examples of super sensitive email conversations and file attachments that HR shares with senior individuals who have email delegates. Topics include salary increases, candidates for senior positions, re-organizations, performance challenges, budget cuts, and discussions about organizational ranking or identification of ‘must keep’ employees or bonus distribution - which may not always include the delegate as a high performer. I am using HR as an example here, but there are infinite examples of situations where it may not be appropriate for delegates to read emails intended for executives. For example, the confidentiality challenges get even more complicated where external exchanges are involved. Mergers and acquisition discussions are particularly sensitive where financial liabilities are at risk when conversations are contractually bound by the confidentiality assurances included in non-disclosure agreements. On a personal note, my husband has no choice but to use an email delegate to manage the hundreds of emails he receives every day.  My intention when sending him emails is not to have the carte blanche ability to send him inappropriate email content, but simply to deal with housekeeping items that could include a doctor’s appointment or input for a vacation budget decision.  But privacy is important to me, and I just would prefer that an email delegate did not have insight into my private life.  So fair enough. I have to respect that work processes and efficiencies are primary considerations, and I have no choice but to avoid sending him email messages.  Alternatively, sending him a message to his Hotmail account is futile since he is exclusively plugged into his corporate email account during business hours. Individuals sending sensitive and private information to an executive may not know or forget that the individual has an email delegate who will have access to the information. What happens if an email includes content or feedback about the delegate?  Awkward! (it does happen - and HR is left to clean up the inevitable drama that ensues). As much as an executive may view their delegate/assistant  in a can-do-no-wrong light and believes an implicit trust and loyalty exists between them, the rest of the team or other email senders may not know the delegate very well or share the executive’s enthusiasm about the individual. The concern about email delegates may never be disclosed by email senders to avoid conflict or discomfort – particularly if the email recipient is the CEO and at the very top of the food chain. The executive should not be in a position to impose a no-way-around-it experience for the sender who often prefers that only the intended recipient can read the email. It may also not be fair to an email delegate to expose them to feeling ‘send resistance’ from senders or be expected to be neutral and unaffected by sensitive information – particularly at the initial raw discussion phase of sensitive topics or when context is missing that was previously provided in in-person meetings. In my career, I have seen many mishaps and uncomfortable situations occur related to email delegates viewing internal and external sensitive information and related to senders not understanding that the email account is viewed by more than one recipient.   Executive teams would be well advised to enter into a discussion about how sensitive and confidential email is handled when a staff member has an email delegate, and about the risks and challenges associated with this type of communication flow . The team may be surprised to learn that some of the members around the table have never heard of the concept of ’email delegate’, let alone that some of the people around the table actually have one that is reading every email sent to that individual.  After all, are email delegates every discussed or disclosed as part of orientation? Is this information published anywhere? Not that I’ve ever seen.   Join the discussion. Share your thoughts regarding email delegates functionality - particularly if you’re an email delegate. We’d love to hear your point of view. Ariane Laird works with email2. email2 prevents email delegates from accessing their managers’ ultra-sensitive emails when marked as ‘For Your Eyes Only’. email2 enables professional services organizations to securely send, receive, track, control and automate delivery of confidential email and large attachments outside the organization – without requiring staff or recipients to change their existing email.