Little errors with big effects

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It’s the type of accident that could happen in any organisation – one click can make a world of difference.

Earlier this year, the HR department at UK insurance firm Aviva was responsible for accidently sacking all of their 1,300 staff. The HR team member sent an 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.

However this was one mistake that was easily resolved. 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.

While accidental emails are fodder for viral internet sensations, the unintentional push of a button can have far worse consequences than simply issuing an apology.

It’s hard to imagine spending months working and lobbying to win people over to your cause, only to be responsible for losing the fight, but that’s exactly what happened to one US politician.

North Caroline state representative Becky Carny has been lobbying colleagues for months to ensure a fracking bill wouldn’t be passed – last week her accidental vote legalized the controversial practice in the state.

The environmental activist was heard to say “Oh my gosh, I pushed green.” Her deciding vote gave the House exactly 72 votes – enough to override a veto from the state governor.

It’s not the first time politicians have pushed the wrong button or ticked the wrong box, while other political errors could have had unforeseen consequences.

In 2009 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was at least allowed to revise his vote, an option Carny didn’t have, when he briefly voted "no" on his own health care bill before changing it to "aye”.

Toronto councilor (and then Mayoral candidate) Jane Pitfield accidentally voted in favour of the city buying a dump in southwestern Ontario, but was also later allowed to change her vote oppose the deal. In an interview at the time Pitfield said she only realized she endorsed the multimillion-dollar purchase when she read the newspaper the next morning.




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