E-mail Disclaimer Overload

Just the message please

I recently noticed not one, not two, but 11 disclaimers at the bottom of an extensive e-mail exchange that occurred over a period of several days.

I noticed that disclaimers first started appearing on some e-mail messages from lawyers a few years back, but more recently, accountants, bankers, financial advisers, and certain types of consultants have also gotten into the act.

Most disclaimers ostensibly serve three functions, although their actual efficacy is subject to question (and would be the topic of an entirely different article):
1.) Notify the recipient that the e-mail message may contain “information that is privileged, confidential and exempt from disclosure under applicable law.”
2.) Tell the recipient NOT to read the e-mail if he is not the intended recipient (presumably, telling the recipient not to read it won’t make him more curious, especially when the disclaimer is at the very end of the message and he’s presumably already read it).
3.) Ask the recipient to destroy the communication if he’s not the intended recipient and, additionally, to notify the sender thusly.

There’s a problem inherent in all of these disclaimers, namely, their position relative to the text of the e-mail message.

Our research on Information Overload has taught me that knowledge workers frequently don’t make it past the middle of the second paragraph of a message. The likelihood of someone making it all the way down to the disclaimer and then reading it is about as likely as someone reading an end-user license agreement (EULA) for a piece of software. (The software companies know that it is very unlikely that a EULA will be read; years ago, PC Pitstop, an antispyware maker, put a note in its own EULA promising $1,000 to the first person who sent an e-mail to a specific e-mail address. It took four months and several thousand downloads before that e-mail arrived and the sender received the $1,000 for his trouble.)

Despite all of this, I really didn’t give much thought to the disclaimer problem until I read an article in the Wall Street Journal (Warning: If the Email You Just Read Isn’t for You, Don’t Read It”) focusing on it. (The premise of the piece was that disclaimers are routinely ignored and held by many to be silly.)

What was really telling were some of the comments from readers. There was clear agreement that the disclaimers were, well, just silly.

Garrett Mcdaniel wrote that, at a previous employment, he added sentences including “Failure to do so will result in the unintended recipient’s immediate extradition to Guantanamo from which they will never be seen or heard from again” or “Crest has been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program….” Neither was ever noticed by a recipient.

Finally, Peter Eggert included a disclaimer on his own comment:
“This comment is the property of Peter and is in no way a representation of his lawyer, dog, parents, the Sun, Jerry Seinfeld, Uranus, or Major League Baseball. Any attempts to recreate this comment shall be deemed ineligible under the SEC Act of 1933, Miranda v. Arizona, and “Finders Keepers”.”

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

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