When writing one-to-one emails, more often than not, there are situations where you don't want the other party to forward your message to anyone (for many reasons). It's not about anything top secret but just an ordinary one-to-one conversation that you don't want others to hear.

Unfortunately some of my colleagues seem to have no boundaries and without hesitation send your every email to other co-workers.

As a result, I'm already very careful when writing with them or avoid it altogether because it already happened too often and I know they won't keep it to themselves (some of them are chiefs).

I was wondering if there was any accepted or recommended way of addressing this issue in my emails and signal that I would not wish that my emails are read by anyone else but the addressee?

Until recently, I've always thought that emails with a single recipient will/should stay just between the sender and the recipient - at least I treat them that way - unless explicitly allowed and requested by the sender.

disclaimer-1: I used the word private before but it lead to lot of confusion so I replaced it with one-to-one as I just mean there is only onc recipient, it doesn't have to be something personal or related to private life, it can be work related but without involving other people.

disclaimer-2: I'm speaking here only about company account and never using my private email.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Mar 30, 2018 at 8:03

7 Answers 7


As soon as you hit the 'Send' button on an email, it is no longer under your control and you are putting your faith in the recipients to treat it appropriately. You can, of course, have a conversation with them about sharing those emails or even ask them in the email not to share it, but ultimately you still have to trust them not to pass it on. If you can't trust your recipients, don't communicate with them by email, or at least do not include anything in the email you would not want to have shared.

Additionally, as others have pointed out, anything you write with the company email account is the property of your company. It is subject to audit and may be read by anyone. There is no such thing as a private conversation here. Never include in a work email anything you would not want to be read by your boss or your IT security team.

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    "anything you write with the company email account is the property of your company. It is subject to audit and may be read by anyone" - at least in companies where occasional private use of the company's systems is not completely forbidden, this is, at least within legal boundaries, simply not true for Germany. Apr 14, 2018 at 23:50
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    Netherlands too. If there are serious allegations of misconduct someone might read them but there are so many legal hoops to jump through that this is rare.
    – Borgh
    Nov 29, 2019 at 12:51

I am going to address this a little differently based on the comments I read.

Let's assume that you wrote an email to your boss explaining a medical condition as a reason for absence. You certainly can put a request in the email that the boss consider the details confidential and not to pass them along. However, be aware that he might need to pass the information to HR if you are asking for some sort of accommodation or extra leave due to the condition. In that case, ask him not to share with anyone except the HR person responsible. This is how several of my colleagues who had cancer chose to handle it and most managers know that they are not supposed to pass on details of anyone's medical conditions without explicit permission from the employee.

Next let's assume you wrote something about feeling too hungover to work or still drunk from the night before. He may feel obligated to pass that on to HR whether you ask for confidentiality or not because it indicates a workplace problem they may need to deal with. Your best bet here is not to share such details in writing.

Let's assume you wrote something about how you dislike Joan because she's ugly and incompetent. Again this comes under the heading of things you don't want to put into writing. If you need to complain about Joan's performance (but not her appearance), then instead of claiming incompetence without any backup, give specific examples of work problems she has created and let the boss decide how critical they are, whether she is incompetent, and whether anything needs to be done. Assume this information will make it to Joan as she has the right to defend herself against accusations. So don't say anything that can't be proved.

Suppose you write that you are being sexually harassed. You can ask for confidentiality but only to the extent it doesn't involve keeping the information from people who need to know. For instance if your boss is not Joan's boss, he is going to have to tell her boss to resolve the issue. And he is going to have to tell HR. However, you certainly can request that the other members of your team not be informed.

Suppose you wrote an email inviting three of your coworkers to meet at the bar after work. Assume there will be no confidentiality and they will also choose to invite people maybe even people you don't like. In this case it might be best to catch the people in person and invite them and then tell them you want to only see them. You don't want to put in writing that you are excluding deliberately someone from an event. It will only backfire, hurt the person, hurt your professional reputation and possibly cause people to take sides and some will take the side of the excluded person. Anyway, this sort of thing is not work-related, so it is best not to use work channels for that sort of thing.

In general though, assume that workplace emails are not private and not the tool to use if you want to share private information.

  • Good point! Medical, and other personal information are protected by law, if I remember right, especially in the USA. Not sure about Germany but I'd imagine European countries tend to have stronger medical laws. If the emails exchanged are about a private medical condition, then boss or not they have no right to share it. However we have no idea what the OP emails were specifically about.
    – Dan
    Mar 29, 2018 at 17:04
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    That's why I gave some different types of examples.
    – HLGEM
    Mar 29, 2018 at 17:05

Your company emails belong to the company, they're not your property and you have no say over what other people do with them.

If your emails are work-related, then people forward/reply to them for work related reasons.

It's that simple.

If your emails aren't work-related, then you need to ask yourself why you're writing them.

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    So you are saying that if you are writing about something personal with your boss... and he sends it to other people, you are ok with that? Or, when you are asking for something (not your boss) and simply don't want other people involved (for whatever reason) and that person you are writing to, sends the message to other parties anyway, you are ok with that too?
    – red-shield
    Mar 29, 2018 at 14:17
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    pretty much, yeah. If the person is subordinate to you, you could add a line at the end "Do not forward this to others". But it's company property.
    – Fattie
    Mar 29, 2018 at 14:21
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    @Fattie it might be company property, I'm ok with that... but it doesn't mean it's for everyone's eyes.
    – red-shield
    Mar 29, 2018 at 14:32
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    Your company emails belong to the company, period the end. What happens to them are ultimately not under your control. @red-shield
    – Neo
    Mar 29, 2018 at 14:34
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    @red-shield Absolutely. But that's because your boss gets to tell you what to do, and if they say "don't share this with others" you don't share this with others because they're your boss. It doesn't work the other way round. Mar 29, 2018 at 15:09

I think HLGEM has done a very good discussion, and everyone else has a pretty standard answer. I was going to add this as a comment but a bit too long:

I was wondering if there was any accepted or recommended way of addressing this issue...

No, there's no accepted way. This is because you're wrong in your assumption "emails with a single recipient are/should be treated as private". You should understand that once you tell someone something, that information is theirs, as well as yours. Thus it falls under their remit to pass on or keep secret, or ignore - whatsoever they like.

Information must be seen as "property" in many ways - once you tell someone something that knowledge is also theirs. Note that if I tell you something and expect you to not divulge it to others and you do, I probably won't make the same choice again. But also note there's very little I can actually do after the fact.

If you feel your colleagues are too eager to pass on your information, then the simplest solution is to not share it in the first place. Asking them to not share it - especially in the office-culture you outline - will be especially ineffective.

Your issue seems to be a cultural one - and office cultural change can really only be effected by management. If you are a manager then you should note so in your question to get more appropriate answers.


My advice would be: keep private conversations and work conversations separated by using the work mail account only for work-related conversations and use your private account if you want to "chat" with your co-workers. Thus its clear when you write as employee red-shield and when as private red-shield

  • Every single person who responded has indeed said this. That's the answer, OP!
    – Fattie
    Mar 29, 2018 at 14:21

IMO, not much you can do. Just because paper letters are the thing of the past, when you get it out its out of your control. You can try to put "In confidence" part on the header or in the beginning of the letter and a few lines in the signature. But it is still in the hands of you recipient.

  • Note that in the US and other jurisdictions, paper letters aren't necessarily private either. Barring contractual obligations and specific legal obligations for health care providers and the like, letters are the property of the recipient, and they may release any excerpts they care to. The writer holds the copyright, so the recipient can't necessarily publish the full letter. Mar 29, 2018 at 15:48

These guidelines are useful to me in situations such as you describe, and in many others. They may be useful to you.

I always try (with the very occasional lapse :-) ).

  • To remember that anything I commit to a traceable non-deniable medium may be shared with person's unknown. (It may happen with untraceable and/or deniable media too, but that's another issue).

  • To remember that long long experience has taught me that people often enough break trust or act entirely unexpectedly, and that 'strange' consequences occur or "stuff happens" - regardless of what was intended or expected.

  • To consider the worst case consequences of any action that I am considering and decide whether I am prepared to accept them.

    Probability has a role in this - but often worst case consequences may be unacceptable regardless of probability.

  • To choose whether to act based on the above criteria.

Regarding sending emails: If I would rather that an email contents be kept private, I ask, up front.
This is no guarantee of compliance. Ever.
If I consider that my reason may seem inobvious or unjustifiable I may 'spell it out'.
If doing so may make me appear paranoid or over sensitive or ... , I consider my points above (usually informally) and decide whether the result is liable to be worth the action.


I have 'too many times' experienced people taking my actions, statements, requests and qualifications, twisting, modifying, intermixing or transmogrifying them and then using this against me - or trying to. Having anything of significance in writing or otherwise recorded can help - but not always. People who care enough about their own agendas may do their utmost to ensure that hard recorded evidence is not considered. If that sounds rather more perverse than the world you have walked through so far, then, I'm pleased for you.

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