What's your problem?

I got fired for a dodgy email...

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I was fired from my last job at a legal firm for sending an e-mail about my stag weekend to my e-mail address book, some of whom were clients. The story got some local press and I'm finding it quite difficult to explain away the situation in job interviews. I realise it was a stupid thing to do, but found it quite funny at the time and never thought it would get so serious. I've had four interviews so far and no-one finds it amusing. What's my best bet in explaining this in future ones? I'm getting worried about this. 

A: You'll go on being worried - and with good reason - until you finally come to terms with what you did and how it strikes other people. It's clear from the way you pose your question that, although you now realise it was a pretty stupid thing to do, you're still surprised that nobody else seems to find it amusing, particularly potential employers. To you, it was just a bit of a jape, a harmless enough lark, maybe in retrospect a little unwise but surely not a hanging offence? C'mon, guys - where's your sense of humour?

At the risk of joining the ranks of the humourless, my sympathies lie more with them than with you - because you're still failing to distinguish between the jape itself and the questions it quite properly raises about your judgment.

Had you still been a carefree student, banging off a hilarious account of your stag weekend to your entire unedited e-mail address book would have been innocuous enough; and if it really was hilarious, would have given fleeting pleasure to quite a lot of people. Maybe a maiden aunt or two would have registered silent disapproval, but most would have read, laughed a bit - and then quickly forgotten all about it.

But you're not still a carefree student and your mistake - and it's a serious one - was your failure to imagine how this apparently innocent act would inevitably seem to others. It's clear from the fact that your e-mail went to clients that you weren't using your own e-mail account but your firm's. Immediately, as you should have realised, your message takes on a different significance. Had it been from your personal e-mail address, the local press wouldn't have been in the least bit interested. There was only a 'story' because a company was involved - and a legal firm at that. You really should have seen that coming.

So that's the mistake you made: not the firing off of an account of a racy weekend, but the total failure to foresee its effect on others. To any potential employer, and particularly a law firm, that's worrying stuff.

Next time you get an interview and the e-mail incident comes up, stop trying to laugh it off as a mildly regrettable bit of silliness. Make it absolutely clear that it's taught you a lesson that you'll never forget. And the lesson is not that that you should forever suppress your sense of fun and mischief-making, but that you'll never again fail to think through the possible consequences of everything you do.

If all this sonorous advice strikes you as coming from yet another person with a sense-of-humour bypass, then I'm afraid you still haven't managed to get it.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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