HR email blunder sacks all 1,300 staff

by Stephanie Zillman24 Apr 2012

It was an accident that could happen in any organisation – one of Britain’s largest insurance companies accidently sent an email sacking all of their employees.

The HR department at insurance firm Aviva was responsible for sending the email which informed recipients to turn in all company property before leaving their premises, and reminded them of their obligation to guard the firm’s confidential information. “It was intended that this email should have gone to one single person,” Paul Lockstone from the London-based insurer said. “Unfortunately, as a result of a clerical error, it was sent to all of the investor’s staff worldwide, he added.

The company was adamant that most people immediately recognised that the email was a mistake, and said it was a simple case of human error. Forced to issue a statement retracting the message, which caused a stir at the company, the HR department issued an apology as soon as the mistake was realised.

How to survive the worst email mishaps

While accidental emails are fodder for viral internet sensations, the unintentional delivery of emails to the wrong inboxes can mean humiliation at best or the end of a career at worst.

A recent survey by The Creative Group found some 78% of execs have mistakenly sent an email to the wrong address, and email mishaps now occur so frequently that there are entire message boards devoted to them. “This happens more than we want to think about because it’s so easy to do,” Alison Doyle, author of Internet Your Way to a New Job said. “There still seems to be a false anonymity or safety factor with email. Plus, when Outlook starts auto-filling the 'to' field, it's easy to get the wrong person or group in there.”

If you are one of the unlucky ones to make a corporate email blunder, Doyle offers the following action plan:

1. Forget about retrieving it

You can’t “unsend” an email.

In rare circumstances, if a high-level employee accidentally sends out highly sensitive document containing company secrets – an IT administrator could theoretically go into individual company mailboxes remotely and delete the email. However, unless you’re signing the annual report, that's probably not an option.

Alternatively, if you sent the email using Gmail, you will have access to a feature that allows you to cancel a ‘sent email’, but you have to set this option up, and you only have a 30-second window to remedy your mistake. It is effectively just a delay in sending.

2. Ignore it

Despite your initial impulse to back pedal, Doyle points out that many receivers may not ever read the email. “In the average company, people get a huge volume of email – it just may get lost in people's inboxes,” she said.

For those who do read it, depending on the tone and language used, their reaction may not be as severe as one fears. Doyle advises to wait for the reaction, and if it causes as uproar, you’ll know soon enough. This is where step 3 becomes important.

3. Apologise – but only to your boss

This step also calls for keeping your panic in check. If you immediately send out a gushing apology email to the same big group, you’re emphasizing a blunder that a good portion of them may not have considered a big deal. “The more you focus on it, the more attention you draw to it,” Doyle said, adding the best port of call is to talk to your boss, be apologetic, and wait for their reaction. If the response is negative, you’ll soon know if you need to do more.

4. Do the full Letterman

According to Doyle, the sincere, self-deprecating on-air apology made by David Letterman after his extramarital indiscretions came to light exemplifies the best one can do in apologising to those who were offended. Going face-to-face with the apology is a must, and Doyle warns not to tempt fate by trying for another ‘reply all’.

Depending on the brand of email you initially sent – for example, criticising the company or senior management – you could be facing discipline or dismissal. If that's the case, it might benefit you to mix your apology with business,  Doyle said. Your mea culpa should include your version of the following delivered in a serious, professional manner: “Look, you can't hear tone of voice in an email. I clearly hit the send button too soon and it was a lousy way to say what I said. But I think it's a legitimate problem and I'd like the opportunity to clarify and expand on what I was talking about.” Depending on how greatly you've upset people, and particularly if the offending email is personal, this may not work. But Doyle advises at this point you have nothing to lose and if you show that you’re an adult about how you're handling a juvenile act, you just may be heard.

5. Make sure it never happens

The smart play: Minimise or eliminate personal use of work email. “You don't have to retract it if you don't say it in the first place,” said Doyle. Keep your personal emails personal, and your work email account for work.


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