Last year a letter mailed to the parents of an elementary school class stirred up a controversy that gripped my Phoenix-area town. (Not a lot happens where I live.)
The story goes like this: A schoolteacher drafts a letter for the parents of her class, then emails it to the school’s principal for his review. The principal makes his edits – and then makes the biggest mistake of his career.
After editing the teacher’s letter, the principal writes his own satirical version, poking fun at the students. He emails the teacher both versions – the “joke” letter for her eyes only, of course. Guess which version ends up in the students’ homes?
Parents complain. The principal is demoted, transferred – and skewered in the local media. Eventually, he’s fired.
How bad was the letter? Here are a couple of snippets:
“The math we do here is really easy. If your child is either too lazy or too stupid to finish it in class, I’m sending it home so that you can work with them and judge for yourself whether it is laziness or idiocy that inhibits your child’s progress.”
“Further, one of our students has a nervous tick that causes him to slap himself in the face several times a minute. In order to help this child not feel conspicuous, we ask that your child imitate a crazed masochist for the length of the field trip.”
This might be an unpopular view, but I don’t believe we can know from this letter whether or not the principal is a bad person or has any negative feelings about the students. What so often gets overlooked in such heated controversies is this: He was joking.
Parents complained that the letter represented his “attitude and what [he] really thinks.” The school district’s superintendent issued a statement complaining that the principal’s “disparaging” remarks were “unacceptable.”
But other parents were just as vocal in their support of the principal. One parent who read the letter told reporters it was obviously tongue-in-cheek, adding, “If you’ve met the man… you know the letter is the complete opposite of how he feels.”
My take is that the principal is probably a decent man and a committed, well-respected school administrator who made one really big mistake.
Which brings me to my main point: The principal’s mistake wasn’t sending his joke letter to the teacher. His mistake was writing the letter in the first place.
We all make computer-related gaffes. Ever deleted a file before saving it? Written over an important file with a new one?
Even if you write a funny note to yourself about your half-wit colleagues and don’t send it to anyone – but simply save it on your computer – you’re still carrying some (admittedly small) risk. Ever attached the wrong file to an email and sent it out?
A colleague once copied me on an email he sent to several of our company’s executives (including his boss), bravely warning them that their behavior was making adversaries of the reporters who covered our company. I wrote a private response to my colleague, telling him how impressive his email was and how it would probably stop our childish execs from undermining the business. Then I hit…
True, even your most careless moment at work probably won’t make news or cost you your job, as it did for this principal. (My Reply All goof cost me only some short-term embarrassment, which I corrected with a sincere apology.) But because we’re all bound to make mistakes, it’s simply not worth it to create the risk that comes with putting insults or mockery on paper or in digital form.
The safest rule is the simplest to follow: Never write negatively about others.