A psychotherapist reached out to ask me if she thought a lawyer acquaintance had acted inappropriately. The psychotherapist regularly serves as a supervisor to visits that noncustodial parents have with their children. As a condition of the visit, a third party in addition to the noncustodial parent and child must be present to ensure the safety of the child. Because these visitations are often court ordered, the noncustodial parent's lawyer will often contact the psychotherapist to help set up the initial visits.
After one such meeting with the parent and child, the psychotherapist emailed the lawyer to report that one visit had occurred and to fill him in on the status of future visits. While the psychotherapist and lawyer had established a policy of keeping one another updated via email, the psychotherapist had a policy of not emailing her clients, but instead speaking with them by phone to set up appointments.
The psychotherapist wants to know if the lawyer crossed a line by copying the noncustodial parent, disclosing her email address and suggesting he email her.
I believe he did.
Where the lawyer went wrong was in not consulting the psychotherapist first to tell her that he planned to copy the client on his email to her and suggest the email contact.
Such gaffes occur regularly in other situations. When, for example, a friend decides that you might be able to help someone he knows with something and wants to introduce the two of you, he might send an email to each of you simultaneously rather than emailing you first to ask if you are OK with him doing this.
The right thing in such circumstances is to ask the recipients first before sharing their email addresses with others. Many people will agree to help via email, but it should be up to them before they are put on the spot.
Granted, many of our email addresses are widely available to anyone who wants to find them. But it should have been up to the psychotherapist how private she wanted her email to be and how she preferred to have contact with her clients.
The same is true for the rest of us.
We should be the ones to decide when and with whom to share email addresses or other contact information. Our professional acquaintances and friends should understand that just because they can share a colleague's or friend's contact information with anyone they want doesn't mean they should without clearing it with the colleague or friend first.
The psychotherapist says that what's done is done. Now that her client has her email address, she'll simply request that he continue contacting her by phone. But she plans to let the lawyer know that she'd prefer in the future that he not share her email address with existing clients without consulting with her first. She's hopeful that the lawyer will not bill the client for the time she spends clarifying this issue with him.
(Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing(at)comcast.net.)