Federal employees are in a unique position. Even for those who work for Uncle Sam and are apolitical, once someone knows you work for a particular agency, those "outsiders" (i.e. taxpayers) may pay more attention to what you say and what you do. They may also be quick to take offense or to take issue with your point of view.
Any company or agency is aware that an errant employee can do harm to the reputation of the organization. As an example, if you work for the Internal Revenue Service in a position that has nothing to do with reviewing or auditing tax returns, cheating on your taxes can lead to removal quicker than in other agencies that have nothing to do with collecting or reviewing taxes. Most readers know this and more or less accept it as a fact of life in government.
With the advent of e-mail, there are new options for self-expression. Some people see the opportunity and take advantage of it. Your passions and beliefs may seem unassailable or perhaps you think your sense of humor will be appreciated by others. But expressing your passions or sense of humor can be a good way to get in serious trouble or to lose your job. (See Think Before Sending E-Mail or check out a few MSPB cases such as this one.)
But here is another twist that, given enough time, will end up getting some readers into hot water.
Many people like to add a flourish to their e-mail by including a quote or comment as part of their signature. Some of these are cute pictures that, for example, show the users name being written out in quill and ink. That is certainly eye-catching but, with all cute, innovative flourishes, it will irritate some readers who will not see the value or utility in the added touch. Others will probably find the program used to create the thoughtful color will create problems with their e-mail program.
Those are relatively minor and, while potentially irritating to some clients or readers, are not likely to create any significant problems.
But e-mail signatures can be more than a colorful flourish. Some e-mail users have taken to including personal thought or expressions at the end of all their e-mails. Some are encouraging; some are hopeful; some are funny (at least that is the apparent intent); some are political.
The ability to personalize e-mail messages does make an impersonal communication more personal. But, when communicating with the public, including agency clients or customers or with people you do not know personally, your intent may be well-meaning but not fully appreciated.
Some readers have strong religious beliefs. We see e-mails from readers that end with a quote from the Bible. No one at FedSmith has been offended by that in any way. But, from an agency’s perspective, is it a good idea to have agency employees sending out e-mails from a federal agency with a religious quote as a form of personal ending?
Here are a couple of examples.
- "If you live like there’s no God… you’d better be right."
- "Life is short – pray hard."
- "When you do a good deed, get a receipt, in case heaven is like the IRS."
I admit, I think they are rather cute and it probably says something about the sender having a sense of humor and being a real person instead of a stereotypical "faceless bureaucrat."
Politics is part of our democracy and federal employees are often embroiled in politics–at least indirectly. Some of them have strong beliefs for or against a party or a person. We know that the Office of Special Counsel will seek disciplinary action against a person who uses his government e-mail address to support a campaign. But how about an innocent saying at the end of an e-mail?
For example, here are several political e-mail endings.
- "Anyone who is capable of being elected president should on no account be allowed to do the job" (From The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy)
- "I used to like political jokes until so many of them got elected!"
- "When Congress balances the budget, we end up budgeting the balance."
- "I took the initiative in creating the internet" – Al Gore
- The Pledge of Allegiance says ‘liberty and justice for all’. Which part of ‘all’ don’t you understand?
Some e-mail endings are just meant to have an edge to them but may also say something about the sender.
- It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re working with turkeys.
- Accomplishing the impossible means only the boss will add it to your regular duties.
- After any salary raise, you will have less money at the end of the month than you did before.
- I don’t mind the rat race but I could do with a little more cheese.
- Admit nothing, deny everything and make counter-accusations.
So, should you add a flourish to your signature when sending e-mail?
If you are using your government e-mail program, be careful. Cute, funny or catchy may make your personality come alive and help define you to those who have not had the pleasure of meeting you. But, when sending e-mail as a federal employee, keep in mind you are also representing your agency and there are some people in your universe of agency clients and customers to whom you would prefer to remain relatively unknown.
How will your boss react to the cute saying you are sending out to others? Will your political statement be seen as a violation of the Hatch Act by someone who may have a different agenda? Does your funny comment have an edge that could be taken as an indication you are a disgruntled employee who is not performing as well as possible?
For those adventurers who can’t help convey their thoughts with each e-mail leaving the computer, we will appreciate your sense of humor or the uplifting thought or your funny political expression–just hope that others will do the same!