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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Career Lessons Everyone Should Learn From the Sony Email Leak

Have you read some of the emails and other details in the recent hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s confidential files?


It’s like your worst work nightmare on steroids—you know, the one where the person you trash talked at the water cooler overheard you and is now calling you out on it. Awk-ward!

There are, however, lessons in this very sad story that we would all be wise to keep in mind at work. Here are three I found particularly profound and good to remember.

1. You Can’t Unring That Bell

Amy Pascal, Sony’s co-chairwoman, said in her statement of apology, “The content of my emails to Scott were insensitive and inappropriate, but are not an accurate reflection of who I am.”

Say what, now? If saying insensitive and inappropriate things is not an accurate reflection of who you are, then what is?

I think what she meant was, “I didn’t think anyone was going to actually read those emails, so I was just being myself.”

Does apologizing to everyone who was offended have the desired effect—for the offended to sympathetically accept the apology and continue on as though no one had, in fact, been offended?

Think about it: If you were one of the people disparaged in the email exchanges, how would you feel about ever working with those people again? Would you trust them? Respect them?

You can’t unring that bell. Talking about others, including colleagues, in such a disparaging manner—and behind their backs—destroys trust and credibility. Can you ever really take those words back?

I think they taught us this lesson back in second grade: If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it behind their backs. And don’t type it in an email either.

2. HR Won’t Save You From Discrimination or Harassment

Among the troves of (alleged) emails released is one detailing one woman’s account of (alleged) sexual harassment, racial discrimination, verbal abuse, misogyny, retaliation, bullying, and oh so much more. For this, her manager (the source of the supposed abuse) was slapped with “harassment training for a half day and HR counseling.”

Let’s assume that if the manager was remanded to harassment training and HR counsel, there was in fact reason to recommend him. Sure, he’ll go. But any expectation that much else will happen—there, or in your own workplace—is unrealistic.

The employer’s obligation (at least in California) is to conduct an immediate investigation, encourage a grievance to be submitted, and protect the employee from retaliation. Check, check, and, OK, not so sure on the last one—but let’s say check.

From a legal perspective, it takes an incredible amount of evidence and a determination of maligned intent to create a case for a law-breaking harassment suit. And no lawyer will take your case unless they know they’ll get paid (read: Unless they think your side will win).

If you’ve been a victim of harassment or aren’t sure if what you’ve experienced crosses a line, HR can be a good resource. And it can help you follow the company’s process for filing a complaint, in case you need that for legal reasons later.

But at the end of the day, HR is not on your side. Its job is to ensure there’s discovery and a follow-up process, not to make sure you are legally protected in the case of a crossed line.

Honestly, your best bet in a situation like this one is to find a better place to work. Better yet, become a leader who creates an organizational culture where this behavior simply is not tolerated.

3. All Together Now: There is No Such Thing as Confidential Email

In addition to the Sony debacle, Nike made headlines this week for suing three major product designers who were in the process of migrating to a competitor.

In the legal investigation over the breach of their non-compete agreements, a computer forensics company recovered emails sent between the designers and a rival shoe manufacturer planning their next move—while they were still in Nike’s employ and while Nike accommodated one employee’s need to spend a year outside the U.S. due to work visa regulations.

Put simply, a computer forensics company can take digital evidence that you might very well think no longer exists and resurrect it to life for all to see—and read.

It shocks me to think people don’t realize confidential email is a contradiction in terms. It simply doesn’t exist. We’d all be better off to remember that.

There used to be a saying: “Don’t put anything in writing you wouldn’t want your mother to read on the front page of the paper.” Seems like good advice for any age.

There are many lessons from this week’s news. And though some might seem basic, they bear repeating. As our workplace becomes more transparent—sometimes welcome, often not—it makes sense to be more thoughtful about our words and deeds.

Photo of newspapers courtesy of Shutterstock.