Like most of you, I get a lot of email. And at the bottom of many of those are email signatures. Some people, like me, don’t bother to have one, because we virtually always know exactly who we’re replying to. Other people have email signatures like this:
Lori Brenden Web Developer/Webmaster Information Technology Department Lane Community College (541) 463-3354 email@example.com www.lanecc.edu
That’s a great signature. Clearly identifies the sender, where she works, and how to contact her. But not everyone has a great signature. This blog post is going to explore some common pitfalls in email signatures at Lane, before introducing a tool to help you generate a good signature. All of the examples here are real signatures from on campus, although I’ve changed contact information to try to protect the the guilty.
Before we get going here, I feel compelled to point out that I am not a lawyer, and this isn’t legal advice. I’m just a web developer that’s read a lot of statutes and regulations.
Jane Doe Department Coordinator Lane Community College 555-555-5555 NOTICE: This e-mail (including attachments) is covered by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C._2510-2521, is confidential and may be privileged. If you are not the intended recipient, please be aware that any retention, dissemination, distribution, or copying of this communication is prohibited. Please reply to the sender that you have received this message in error, then delete it. Thank you for helping to maintain privacy.
The first four lines of this signature are great. Then things take a turn downhill. Let’s look at all the clauses in that disclaimer:
- This e-mail (including attachments) is covered by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C._2510-2521, is confidential and may be privileged.
- True! All electronic communications are covered by 18 USC § 2510-2521. You can read that whole section online. But, and this is important, 18 USC § 2510-2521 only covers email in transit, rather than email at rest in the recipients inbox.
- If you are not the intended recipient, please be aware that any retention, dissemination, distribution, or copying of this communication is prohibited
- False! Remember, 18 USC § 2510-2521 only covers mail in transit. Here’s a blog post with more detail.
- Please reply to the sender that you have received this message in error, then delete it.
- It’s a nice request, but no one is required to adhere to it.
- Thank you for helping to maintain privacy.
- You’re welcome
Not a bad start to the signature, but the disclaimer is useless. Before going into why that’s bad, let’s look at another disclaimer I see all the time.
Jane Doe Department Coordinator Department Name Lane Community College 4000 East 30th Avenue Eugene, Oregon 97405 (555) 555-5555 firstname.lastname@example.org This message and any attachments are intended only for the use of the individual and entity to who it is addressed and may contain information that is privileged and confidential and/or protected from disclosure under Oregon Public Records Statue (ORS192). If you are not the intended recipient or an authorized representative of the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any viewing, disclosure, distribution or copying of this communication and/or attachments is strictly prohibited. If you have received this communication in error, please notify the sender immediately by reply e-mail and delete the message and any attachments. Thank you for your cooperation.
Again, the start isn’t so bad. But despite being longer, this disclaimer is equally useless. The first part is about ORS 192, which does have clear language in places about information we, as public employees, can’t disclose.
But I’m yet to find anything in 192 that says what a non-employee can do once information has been disclosed, which makes me think it’d be really hard, if not impossible, to back up the second sentence. You can’t prohibit someone from viewing something you’ve already put in their mailbox, and once an email is sent, you can’t retract it – even in Groupwise (which has limitations on what it can retract).
I should point out that 192 is very clear about civil actions that are permitted if an employee discloses information, even by accident (like sending an email to the wrong person).
Disclaimers can create a false sense of security. Today, I talked to someone that added the 18 USC § 2510-2521 to her email because it was what someone else was using, and she thought it’d be a good idea to include a disclaimer prohibiting redistributing an email, just in case she were to ever accidentally email someone. But the disclaimer doesn’t actually protect her (or you) at all. That false sense of security might make you less likely to double check an email address and catch a mistake that could lead to an inadvertent privacy issue
Second, disclaimers make a terrible impression on our students. Imagine you’re a student and you email an employee with a quick question. The employee responds, with a few words, a four line signature, and then a two paragraph disclaimer. What impression are you going to have of the college? Certainly not a welcoming one.
There may be a very narrow situation when a disclaimer makes sense*.If you feel like you absolutely must have a disclaimer, I’d encourage you to use something short and friendly, such as “If you were not the intended recipient of this message, please let me know and delete this message”. But know that message doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to not share privileged emails in the first place.
In researching this post, I found it interesting that NC State suggests this disclaimer:
“All electronic mail messages in connection with State business which are sent to or received by this account are subject to the NC Public Records Law and may be disclosed to third parties.”
That’s true in Oregon as well, except where expressly prohibited by some other statute (such as FERPA). Many people you email with may not be aware that the public can make a records request to see those emails.
But I’d encourage you to use no disclaimer at all.
Colors are Probably a Bad Idea
Here’s another example:
lanecc.edu | 555-455-5555
In terms of content, this is a great signature. Provides contact information in a compact, straight forward way. But the colors create an issue. There’s strict requirements for making sure there’s enough contrast. The words “Department Coordinator” and the funding notice on the last line have contrast ratios of 2.4 and 1.5, respectively. 508 guidelines require at least 4.5, so that people with limited vision can see it.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with plain black text. And please, avoid doing things like this:
Jane Doe, Department Coordinator
The signature isn’t too bad, but the colors aren’t appropriate to the Lane brand. But be careful if you do use Lane branded colors: our blue is close to the default color for link text, and our gold on white doesn’t have enough contrast for Section 508. Again, remember that it’s hard to go wrong with black text.
Don’t Repeat Yourself
Ever see one of these?
Thanks for sending that email! -Jane Jane Doe Department Coordinator Lane Community College 555-555-5555
Don’t sign your emails twice.
Keep the Font simple
Sometimes, I’ll see something like this:
Lane Community College
It might be hard to see, but the top two lines are in a sans-serif font, while the bottom two are in a serif font. It just looks silly.
Similarly, the second line is italicized, while the third is bold. There’s too much going on in this signature.
Remove your Quotes
You should probably avoid using a quote in your signature. Often, the quotes are hackneyed, and people just find them annoying. And if you’re not careful, your quote could end up offending someone, either with the content of the quote or through the attribution
Here’s our final example signature:
Lane Community College
Continuing Education Department
To view classes, create a profile, register and pay for classes go to: ce.lanecc.edu
This one, at first glance, seems like a great idea — after all, we want you to look at that catalog. But the problem is the size. That catalog cover was designed to be seen on the cover of a booklet with the same dimensions as a letter sized piece of paper. Here, I’m not sure at first if I’m looking at an artistic display of tan pillows or a set of crackers.
But it is possible to use images in your signature well. Small social media icons, for instance, which link to the appropriate pages, could be a great idea. If you’re in a role that interacts with students regularly, you might also consider a professional picture of your self (unlike the headshot I use when I posting these blog posts, you should use something that shows you in a professional setting.
But always remember that your signature is likely to be viewed at arms length, on a screen measuring as little as a few inches across. If your picture doesn’t look good when it’s the size of a postage stamp, don’t use it.
* There may be circumstances where adding a disclaimer may strengthen grounds for a civil suit. Some states have privacy laws (I didn’t research Oregon’s), and there’s the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1977). § 652D, although there’s a fairly narrow definition of when that applies. I’d definitely be nervous about a disclaimer that cites a law that doesn’t really apply. And remember, I am not a lawyer, and nothing on this blog is legal advice.