Avoiding nightmare on email street

There are several ways to come back from a 'reply all' disaster, writes Kate Jones.

There are several ways to come back from a 'reply all' disaster, writes Kate Jones.

Ever experienced the horror of accidentally hitting "reply all" on an email meant for just one person? Media businessman Simon Payne has.

As an up-and-comer at top ad agency Clemenger BBDO, he unintentionally hit "reply all" to an email that had been sent by the company's CEO to thousands of employees in Australia and around the world.

Unfortunately for Payne, his email contained a light-hearted dig at the CEO, who had taken a long time to send the email to staff.

"I thought I forwarded the email to a mate in the Melbourne agency that said, 'Gee about time', but I sent it back to everyone by mistake," he says.

"I nearly went and threw up in the toilet. I felt like my dreams of climbing the corporate ladder had been shattered."

Luckily for the then 22-year-old, the CEO wasn't fazed and merely replied with a 'You're welcome' email.

Looking back on it, Payne, who is now the managing director of Media Resources for Editors, says the incident taught him a lot about paying attention to detail.

"Reply all" disasters are common in the business world where dozens of emails are sent and received each day. Depending on what the email contains, a "reply all" mishap could bring serious consequences. At worst, it could bring a hasty firing or forced resignation. At best, a simple apology will do.

Whatever the situation, business etiquette expert Anna Musson from The Good Manners Company says a quick email explaining the error is always required.

"You need to write a quick note apologising for the error," she says.

"Something along the lines of, 'I accidentally pressed reply all. Please disregard my comments' and in most cases, it can be left at that.

"Remember, most people are really busy and won't have time to read your emails."

Once the error has been assessed as not serious, Musson cautions against excessive apologies.

"Don't over-apologise because it makes it seem like a bigger gaffe than it really is," she says.

But if your email is offensive in any way, it's best to see the aggrieved person face-to-face as soon as possible. "Make no mistake, you can be fired for such an act," she says.

Copying 100 wrong or unnecessary emails equates to eight hours of lost productivity, according to email expert Chee Wong.

"You can imagine, in an organisation with 10,000 employees, even if just 1 per cent of employees "reply all' to a company-wide email, that's 1 million replies generated," Wong says.

"Boom for the server, and boom for productivity."

Wong, principal of Expert Messaging Australia, runs corporate programs training people to use email more effectively.

He says the worst example of a "reply all" disaster he has dealt with involved an employee who hit "reply all" to an email sent to 15,000 employees warning them of a crashed server. Other employees replied to the original "reply all" email by also hitting "reply all". Ironically, this caused the mail server to crash.

Wong says "reply all" mistakes are easily made, but there are easy ways to prevent them: Automatically delay the delivery of all emails - in Outlook, you can apply a rule that delays the delivery of all outgoing emails by the amount of time you desire. One to five minutes are good time delays. Gmail users can activate the undo send option under the settings section. Take your pick from five, 10, 20 or 30 seconds.

Install TuneReplyAll - a free add-on to Outlook 2010 that shows a warning message when a user tries to reply to everyone.

Install Microsoft's NoReplyAll - a free add-on for Outlook 2010 from Microsoft that disables the "reply to all" function of all incoming emails. It can also disable the "reply to all" and "forward" function of emails you send. Unfortunately this only works on the same Exchange Server domain or "intra" emails within your company.

Remove or move the "reply all" buttons - in Outlook 2003 and 2007 this is easily done but is more difficult in Outlook 2010. The bottom line - remove the button or move it as far away from the send button as possible so it is out of harm's way.

Proofread your emails - this sounds a lot less robust because it relies on human intervention. But if you get into the habit of proofreading your emails, many slip-ups can be prevented. Remember, "reply all" is just one of many email blunders.

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