Managing an email disaster

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In October 2011, instead of sharing a 3,700 word critique of current employer Google and former employer Amazon, programmer and blogger Steve Yegge shared it with all his contacts – who quickly passed it on. Yegge described it as “what must be the great-granddaddy of all Reply-All screw-ups in tech history.”

Yegge still works for Google, proving that these kinds of errors don’t have to be career-ending. But what can you do if it’s you or one of your staff?

If it’s your mistake

  1. Be upfront, prompt and honest
    As soon as you become aware of the error talk to the person you directly report to. You don’t want them to find out from someone else, so approach them, be honest and apologetic and have a plan of action ready. Don’t over-apologize – managers would rather have solutions than blubbering.
  2. Who is affected?
    There’s a big difference between sharing confidential information about an individual or the company, and sharing a personal opinion that won’t win you friends. Know the consequences of what you said and who you need to talk to. If your mistake could have legal ramifications, such as sharing breaching privacy laws, consider talking to a lawyer.


  1. Apologize – and not Hollywood style
    Public figures have perfected the “sorry/not sorry” apology – usually including the words “I apologize to those who were offended.” Take a page out of Yegge’s book – his apology took full responsibility and apologized to everyone affected, without trying to make excuses.

If it’s one of your team

  1. Assess the seriousness
    Could they or the company be liable? Could your organization lose a client? It’s important to look at what damage could result, and how it can be mitigated. While it may be momentarily satisfying to yell at an employee, focus first on reducing the damage, rather than on punishing the individual. That will be decided by policy and process.
  2. Give the benefit of the doubt
    Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s unlikely your employee did this on purpose so don’t dwell on their error, focus on fixing it. Much like when it’s your error, alert the higher-ups as soon as possible, and be prepared to offer some options for the next step to mitigate damage.
  3. Follow the process
    It could be a career-ending mistake, but that’s not something you need to worry about in the first instance. Take the right steps and record everything that was said and action that was


On a final note, if you notice your “send” error promptly, some programs will allow you to recall an email. To find out if this is an option on your system, search the “how to” section of the program.


  • AJ on 2013-06-13 11:33:47 AM

    A collegue of mine has set the email program to have a 2 minute delay on send. This allows for stopping the email in that time. Often we realize our mistake a second after hitting send. Seems useful, but means when sending emails during phone meetings, the delay can be annoying.

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