We’ve all been there. Even with the most careful review, a wrong email goes out the door with a message you didn’t want to send, or to someone who shouldn’t have received it. When this mini office disaster strikes, don’t panic. Knowing your options and acting swiftly (but professionally) can help to keep your office reputation intact. Here’s what to do if you emailed the wrong person:
Don’t react, respond
The first step is to take a deep breath and prepare a response plan, not a panicked reaction. Since it’s likely we were distracted or working quickly when the wrong email went out, it can be tempting to hustle into face-saving mode. Unfortunately, that can lead to follow-on errors, so above all slow yourself down for a minute before proceeding. You’ll be better prepared to navigate the follow-on office politics.
Understand your recall options
Thankfully, the bright minds at places like Google and Outlook understand that these things are going to happen. Whatever email service provider you’re using, do a quick search to understand exactly how you can recall an email and what remains visible to the unintended receiver on the other side. (For example, some systems issue “recall” message, but don’t actually delete the received note, so just be sure you know what the end outcome actually is.)
Evaluate the content in the error
Take a beat to consider where you’re at on the email disaster scale. Is it just a mis-spelled name that landed you in someone else’s inbox at your company, or did you add an extra recipient without meaning to? Innocuous misdirections like this can be corrected pretty easily, provided you don’t have any personally identifiable information in the email or information that your company would deem sensitive. If the latter is the case, you’ll want to check in with a manager or HR contact on policies surrounding mis-dissemination—just to cover your bases. Data breaches are serious business, and you want to be sure you’re not in violation of any security policy.
If you didn’t have anything sensitive in the email, one of the most courteous things to do is craft an email with a single sentence in the subject line, sparing the recipient from having to open this note as well. (And if they haven’t opened the other one yet, possibly meaning they only have to delete it.) Something like, “Regret the earlier misdirect. Please disregard my previous note. n/t” (The “n/t” tells them there’s “no text” in the email, meaning it’s a quick scan for folks as they’re rolling through their messages on their phone.)
Evaluate the recipient of the error
The quick one-liner works wonders if you know that it’s a peer, or someone generally in your colleague pool that received your misfire. Alternatively, if you’ve mistakenly sent something off to a big wig, it might take a little more repair. Depending on who you’re dealing with, you might consider a quick call to their administrative support, who likely have email access and can possibly even delete the mistake before it catches the eye of the big boss.
If the message went outside of your organization, that’s another incident where a phone call can be the best way to intercept a poorly-received message. Again, ensure that it doesn’t contain proprietary info that would require you inform a manager or other parts of your security team.
Depending on the cringe factor of the message in combination with who received it, you might do yourself a favor by giving your boss a heads up. Coming clean quickly, letting them know how you’re remedying it, and saving them from hearing it from another person is often the most professional way to save face in these incidences.
If something gossipy between you and a close colleague left the nest and it really wasn’t your best self, try for a quick call or drive by your boss’s office the same day. Your own office culture will help gage if this is necessary, but if there’s any chance that this could come back to haunt you in performance reviews, compensation discussions, or how you’re perceived by your peers, err on the side of disclosure.
A quick admittance and explanation, along with your apology and how you remedied the situation should be enough. “Alex and I were trading emails about the sales meeting today and in that note some of my comments were unprofessional. I accidentally sent it to Jenna, and gave her a quick call to apologize for those remarks asking that she delete the email. She understood and was gracious, but I just wanted to make you aware of the situation. It won’t happen again.”
Own up to your error and apologize
There are generally two categories of the most cringe-worthy sends. Either mass errors, where just your average every day work email goes to the wrong gal, or (eek) large group of people. These are annoying, but provided they’re not in the territory of security issues, can usually be solved with the one liner apology above.
The other category is the one we all struggle to recover from. The one where something outside of our normal office speak, badmouthing a person or process, or revealing perhaps plans for a new gig makes its way into the wrong hands. In these big error, wrong gal moments, extra damage control is needed.
Those always require a phone call to the recipient. (And, if it’s a thread where another colleague might come off in a less-than-flattering light, you may need to pre-plan with them as well.) Again, straight up honesty is the best policy here. “I’m sorry, that email wasn’t intended for you. I have some potential opportunities I’m considering but I’m not ready to share that information more widely. I hope you understand and would delete the note I’ve accidentally just sent.”
If the email was more of the snarky variety, you can still save some face by using it as an opportunity to potentially have some more constructive conversations about whatever you’re addressing in the note. “Please excuse the language I used in reference to the sales meeting we had last week. I’m feeling frustrated about where we’re at with that project, but I certainly could have taken that feedback to Anna directly and will do so now.”
The bottom line is that nothing is without repair if you act thoughtfully and with enough grace and transparency. And going forward, adding a few safety nets like turning on spell check prompts and sending confirmation features can give you that extra few seconds of review to help prevent future email sending disasters.