I enjoyed reading the extracts from the S&P IMs and emails, especially the delightful image of cows arranging the debt structure. It's satisfying on a primal level to have some individuals to blame for the mortgage implosion. I'm worried though that the wrong lessons are being drawn. Here's a comment on that article:
1. Never email something you can say over the phone.
2. Never say something over the phone you can say in person.
3. Never say something in person that can be understood with a wink and a nod.
And never leave a voicemail that says anything but your name, number and asks the person to give you a call back.
That's probably sensible advice, but it's also very depressing. It's throwing away all the advances in speed, permanence, and searchability that we get from modern technologies like email or IM. If we all have to act like conspirators, it makes us a lot less productive. Even humor is a vital part of turning a bunch of individuals into a team, and Henry Blodget, who should know, comments:
It's the folks who are just chattering and venting to colleagues about
normal business tensions who are most at risk. The computer doesn't
capture the wink or head nod. It doesn't say "this is my first
reaction…when I have considered everything in detail, I'll give you
my final opinion." Etc.
I haven't read the S&P stuff, so I don't want to take a
position on the folks who wrote those specific emails. But I'd venture
to guess that, if you sat them down and asked "Was it your professional
opinion that the product you were rating was structured by cows," the
answer would be "Of course not. I was trying to make my colleague
So what's the solution? Long-term, I'd really hope we could get away from being able to sway a jury or the media with a couple of juicy quotes taken out of context. Our unhealthy obsession with 'gaffes' in the presidential campaign is the same problem. As an audience we'd much rather focus on simple but superficial single sentences and find easy scapegoats, than actually spend time trying to understand the deeper issues.
Until then, I think the first comment is right. Be very careful about using humor in an email, it might come back to haunt you.