The State Worker

The State Worker: Email for dummies

The section of California Government Code that lists reasons for disciplining state employees.
The section of California Government Code that lists reasons for disciplining state employees.

California law gives 22 specific causes to discipline state employees, from lying and disobedience to inefficiency and misuse of state property.

And then there’s reason No. 23, a catch-all: “Other failure of good behavior either during or outside of duty hours, which is of such a nature that it causes discredit to the appointing authority or the person’s employment.”

Ol’ No. 23 may have come into play when two Department of Toxic Substances Control employees were disciplined for writing racist state emails that mocked the poor and people with ethnic names or accents, said Paul Chan, a Sacramento workplace attorney.

In case you missed it, the emails went to Truthout as part of a larger Public Records Act request, then on to Consumer Watchdog. The advocacy group – a longtime department critic – posted the emails on its website.

For example, when toxicologist William Bosan sent an email to co-worker Theo Johnson about cheap hotel accommodations for a business trip, he joked about the room coming with “used condoms and needles.” Johnson replied that if the room came with a “crackho hooker” they “would not need those accessories.”

One email referenced Hop Sing, a submissive Asian character on TV’s “Bonanza.” Another speculated, “Mommy must have had way too many pain killers,” when giving a co-worker an ethnic name.

Bosan and Johnson still work for the state but were disciplined for their racist repartee, according to department officials. Neither returned calls for comment.

Sometimes a story has one lesson. This one has several.

Lesson 1: Don’t make racist remarks. Maybe you think the country is obsessed with political correctness and you can’t take it anymore. Just realize that even borderline comments at work can disrupt your career. “Free speech doesn’t mean the right to be free from consequences,” Chan said.

Lesson 2: Don’t make racist remarks in work email. Employees often don’t realize that their e-missives are subject to inspection by their employers, Chan said, or they think no one will ever look. Think twice before your fingers wander or you forward a “funny” email.

“I always tell people if it’s something you’re not comfortable telling a person directly, like making a Hop Sing or Charlie Chan reference to someone who is Asian,” Chan said, “you certainly shouldn’t put it in writing.”

Lesson 3: Don’t make racist remarks in a government email; it could become public. Your closed state office, computer passwords and card-lock doors are a fortress illusion. You’re doing public work, much of it accessible through a simple request. You never know when someone outside might see a thoughtless comment.

And that could land you in the wrong kind of interview with HR, listening to why your record will be stained with “other failure of good behavior” and how you’ve discredited yourself and your employer.

Just ask the guys at Toxic Substances Control.