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The email that echoed around the world

The email that echoed around the world

AN EMAIL SENT ACROSS THE GLOBE FROM A CANADIAN LAW FIRM IS A RECENT REMINDER OF THE DANGERS OF EMAIL. KATE GIBBS FINDS THAT, IN OUR ELECTRONIC AGE, ANY FIRM CAN BE EMBARRASSED BY AN EMPLOYEE…

AN EMAIL SENT ACROSS THE GLOBE FROM A CANADIAN LAW FIRM IS A RECENT REMINDER OF THE DANGERS OF EMAIL. KATE GIBBS FINDS THAT, IN OUR ELECTRONIC AGE, ANY FIRM CAN BE EMBARRASSED BY AN EMPLOYEE WITH AN AXE TO GRIND

IN A CASE of lawyers behaving badly, an attorney at Canadian firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP has set off an email chain in which he claims he was harassed for being “a snappy dresser and too friendly and too gay”.

The 31-year-old lawyer Joseph Briante has since resigned from his role after he was “quarantined at home, not allowed back in the office until further notice”, providing a cringe-worthy reminder of the risks associated with group emailing.

Lawyers Weekly was one of many recipients of the email last week, sent via a long list of lawyers and others across the globe. In the email, Briante claimed that he “had been subject to a barrage of uninvited comments about my personal life, my appearance and my manner of dress”.

Rather than discuss the issues with his supervising partner or HR, Briante took his complaints to the web, and emailed everyone at the firm, about 500 people across several offices.

He referred to problems he had with one individual, claiming, “I am routinely scoffed, hissed and huffed at by this individual whenever I am near him. In fact, I can’t recall a single encounter with this individual where there has not been a snide remark or utterance of disgust directed toward me. This individual has been publicly cursing (in the hallways no less) my name, my appearance, my reputation and has made several comments to others as regards to my manner of professionalism.”

Briante went on to urge the firm to provide some “basic education on respect, tolerance and emotional intelligence,” lest it become a place where “a colourful, slick and stylish manner of dress, a friendly demeanour, winning smile and alleged homosexual propensities are considered ‘unprofessional’“. He asked that the “folks” remember it is 2006.

He told his recipients that he is an “expert yogi” and that he has “trained with enlightened masters in meditation and I know a plethora of great techniques for clearing emotional poisons”. He added that he “simply operate[s] as a Corporate Jesus or Office Buddha” and urged them to behave similarly.

An equally embarrassing episode, now dubbed Sandwichgate, originated in Australia last year, from within the firm Allens Arthur Robinson. In this vitriolic cyber brawl, two secretaries entered an email exchange about a missing packet of ham, some cheese slices and two slices of bread. The email between them was forwarded out of the firm and into the in boxes of lawyers, bankers and the press.

The now famous email exchange began when one secretary emailed all senior associates, lawyers and support staff on level 19 of the Sydney office, asking whether anyone had taken the makings of her lunch. The other secretary informed her that “there are items fitting your exact description in the level 20 fridge. Are you sure you didn’t place your lunch in the wrong fridge yesterday?”

But things soon turned nasty when the subject moved from lost sandwich fillings to relationships, hair colour, quality of apartments, car, salary and quantity of boyfriends: “Let’s not get person (sic) ‘Miss Can’t Keep A Boyfriend’.”

But it was when one forwarded the email to a lawyer in mergers and acquisitions that the exchange became dangerous, and was sent outside the firm. While some media reports said that the two young women had been sacked over the exchanges, Allens refused to officially confirm the claims, warning instead that it is a lesson to all companies and individuals about the improper use of email.

Lawyers from outside Allens also weighed in. One partner at Phillips Fox noted, as the emails ricocheted from one side of the country to the other, “it’s like a bushfire … but let’s keep it moving … the dangers of email, sure to be in Lawyers Weekly next week.”

Unfortunately for the Canadian firm, Briante appears not to have taken heed of Allens Arthur Robinson’s wise warning about giving grievances a virtual airing. His email was a deliberate attack on colleagues, the firm, and its entire culture. The original sender intended to embroil as many people as possible in the diatribe.

The email chain picked up comments from across the globe on its way to Australia, including some from other lawyers. “Your open letter has made it as far as our small practice in the Central Australian desert,” wrote one.

To keep momentum going, Briante then reissued the email, with an opening paragraph and explanatory statement. “Please find below my open letter to Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP regarding repeated harassment in the workplace. It’s hilarious — I got in trouble for being a snappy dresser and too friendly and too gay!

“It’s causing a bit of a shit storm here — just had the managing partner at my house advising me that I should seek counselling, that I’m obviously not a happy person, that he’s known no problems with harassment in the 18 years in the firm and hey, ‘we have gay partners’. I’m now quarantined at home, not allowed back in the office until further notice.”

“Anyway, I thought I’d shoot it down the associate gossip channels, just for kicks. I thought I’d mirror the model of gossip at my firm. So please indulge me in passing it along,” he wrote.

The firm has confirmed that, on the contrary, it does not tolerate harassment of any kind, as the law requests. Canada.com reported that managing partner William Westeringh and Briante’s mentor visited him at home and gave him a pamphlet on mental illness and counselling services offered through the firm. “We take the allegations being made by [Briante] very seriously,” Westeringh said. “We are committed at the firm to providing a collegial working environment. We do not tolerate harassment of any kind as protected by law.”

Even so, the fact the firm had to play out an internal drama on the world stage demonstrates just how powerful any employee with a grudge and a modem can be. g

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