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The Danger of “Reply All” in the Corporate Environment

Let me set up a situation for you. There’s a company event coming up, and the person in charge of planning it has been sending out email updates to everyone all day long – often several an hour. It would be one thing if this person was trying to put out fires, but most of the emails could have easily been combined and sent out at the same time.

Your friend in the cubicle next to you sends you a message on the thread: “How annoying is this…” You smile and quickly reply: “Yeah, what an idiot.” Almost immediately, your friend stands and turns to you, wide-eyed.

You know what’s coming next, right? I certainly do. All too well, I’m afraid.

Somehow when you responded to your friend’s email, you managed to hit the reply all button, telling everyone on the original email how you really feel and acting like a jerk to the event planner. How are you going to live this down? Should you apologize to the person you insulted? If so, should you do it in person or over email?

“Reply All” – More Impactful Than You Think

Now, this might sound like a relatively harmless problem, but it most decidedly is not. VoloMetrix, a company in Seattle that specializes in tracking how its’ clients employees use technology at the office, says that five percent of all emails are reply alls.

One in every 20 emails doesn’t seem like a lot, but think about how many emails you send in a day and then multiply that by hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of employees for larger companies. Suddenly, we’ve talking about a whole lot of potentially harmful emails. Employees embarrassing themselves and injuring each other’s pride like in the above example is the least of your worries.

What are some of the bigger dangers?

How “Reply All” Can Cost You

Corporations have far more important things to worry about where the reply all button is concerned, many of which people don’t really consider until they’re faced with a problem.

Loss of workers. Calling someone an idiot may or may not be a harmless mistake, depending on your office environment, but what if someone used vulgar language or profanity? In 2008, a Navy veteran was fired for accidentally hitting reply all when he sent out an email that used the words “ass” and “kiss” – not necessarily in that order – which violated policies and were found to be offensive. Replacing an experienced worker with someone new is an expensive proposition. First, you need to go through the hiring process, then they’ll have to be trained (don’t skip the lesson on not hitting reply all!), and then there’s likely to still be a learning curve.

Possible legal action. That same Navy veteran is now costing the government more money by suing them for discrimination for firing him. His lawyer even refers to his accidental use of the reply all button in the lawsuit! Regardless of whether he wins or loses, the government is going to spend lots of money dealing with the court case.

Lower productivity. How many times have you gotten a reply all email and wondered why in the heck you were included? Or been trapped in a seemingly endless reply all email conversation where someone sends a reply that should have been private to the group, then receives endless requests (still to the entire group, of course) to stop replying to everyone? Having your employees constantly distracted by incoming emails that don’t even pertain to them is horrible for productivity, and the other side of that coin is that many will start to ignore their emails and miss important information.

Intellectual property fear. With so many people accidentally emailing everyone, the chances of inadvertently revealing the details of a classified project go up astronomically. Suddenly, your “secret” project isn’t so secret anymore because instead of just a few people knowing about it at the company, an email went out to dozens. Or hundreds. Or thousands. Even if you’re lucky enough not to have someone willing to sell the information to a competitor, what do you think the chances are that not even a single one of those people might let it slip to someone with fewer scruples?

The solution? Create a culture of transparency and respect. I try to live by the belief that if you cant say it to someone’s face, then do not say it at all. We live in a world where social media and cell phones makes our actions visible to the masses, do not fool yourself into thinking that something you say in email cannot end up in the public eye. More importantly, try to genuinely respect your fellow team members and be above board in all you say and do.

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