E Is For Error


When I was CEO for United Healthcare of the Mid-Atlantic, I had a fairly high-level performance management issue with which I needed to deal. I went to the office in question and had a difficult, though very necessary, meeting. I followed up with an email to the person under review (let’s call him Don), outlining his performance management issues and the initiatives we’d agreed upon. I sent a bcc to my boss and signed off for the night before heading home. This was a couple of decades ago. You remember, that time period when we had email, but weren’t connected 100% of the time via our phones. I had no further work-related contact that night. The next morning, however, was an entirely different story.

The first email I saw was from my boss. It read something to the effect of: “He’s worthless and so is this pointless exercise. The sooner the performance management period is over, the sooner we can get rid of him and upgrade that office.” No biggie, except he’d hit “reply to all,” instead of “reply”! The next email was from Don. It read “it’s obvious this performance management time period is a sham. Let’s work out my departure.”

We were actually really lucky. We gave Don a generous separation package and off he went. But it could have been much worse. He could have sued us. I’m not saying he’d have won, but at the very least, he’d have had what my lawyer friends refer to as a colorable argument. Meaning Don could have made us squirm quite a bit and might even have won a case against us. It could have been really ugly.

More recently, a client told me he’d sent the following text to his girlfriend: “Looks like we won’t be going to dinner tonight. I’m still waiting for my boss who’s now an hour and half late for our 5:00 o’clock meeting. Sorry, honey!” The only problem? He actually sent the text to his boss. Luckily for him, he hadn’t disparaged his boss, and what he’d texted was truthful, even if sent to the wrong person. My client texted again to his boss and said, “Sorry, that was meant for Anna.” His boss shrugged off the text and even said no apology was necessary.

Those examples aside, we are all aware of other similar types of situations where the fallout is far worse. Whether personal or professional, electronic errors can range from simply embarrassing to downright harmful. Here are some easy rules to follow to limit the potential for damage:

  • Don’t use the bcc function. When I want to make someone aware of an email I’ve sent, I forward it to them separately, simply adding “FYI” in the subject line. That eliminates the likelihood of that particular error occurring!
  • Before you hit send, review not only the contents of the text or email, but the “To” line as well. You may have noticed yourself that, with auto-fill, you can mistakenly add another party to the “To” line when you are actually trying to type in the body of the text. 
  • If you send a text or email to the wrong party, don’t panic! Think through the ramifications of following up with what might later seem like a lame explanation, versus not following up at all. Sometimes, a simple, “Sorry, that wasn’t meant for you,” like my client did in the example above, will suffice.  In any event, think before you take action. Maybe even discuss the incident with a trusted friend to get another opinion, if you find the erroneously sent text or email particularly worrisome. The most important takeaway here is that, although your immediate thought may be to try to undo the error with a follow up,  you should think that through and be careful to not compound the initial error.

Sometimes, electronic errors are the sign of a person who is moving too quickly to maintain accuracy. If you’re thinking that might be you, and you’d like some tools to help you slow down while remaining effective, get in touch at bob@epi.coach or give us a call at 301-520-9511. Learn from our mistakes before you make them yourself!