Digital Life

License article

The email gaffe - how to control the damage

Sending an email to the wrong person or group can be embarrassing. Fortunately, there are ways you can prevent such disasters.

"It sended!" says a distraught Gloria on TV comedy Modern Family. "Please come back."

It's a familiar phrase said all too often in the tech era, where email gaffes happen every day.

Take for example the story of the British bride-to-be who was humiliated after the hotel where she planned to hold her wedding described her and her fiance in an email as not "the right type of people" to stay there. The wedding co-ordinator intended to send the email to a colleague.

Then there was the time Aviva, Britain's second-biggest insurer by market value, mistakenly sent an email dismissing all its 1300 staff before retracting the message. It was intended for one.

The list goes on and on - and sometimes the gaffes end in tears, like when a Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia) employee accidentally sent an email upgrading more than 1 million Velocity members to "gold" status, offering them free lounge memberships and upgrades.

The offer was withdrawn in a follow-up email, but not before many demanded a free upgrade.


You've probably come close to sending an email to the wrong person yourself or including something in an email you thought you had removed but didn't. But did you know there are ways to stop a silly mistake like this from happening? Best of all, it doesn't mean sneakily logging on to the person's email you sent it to so that you can delete the email you sent (which Gloria did).

Measure 1 - Use common sense

There are technical measures you can implement to prevent yourself from looking silly. But regardless of what technology is available, the first line of defence should always be you.

In all cases, you should read the “To”, “CC” and “BCC” fields before you send any email. You should also look at what you have attached and at the email's body. Always proof-read it.

Measure 2 - Delay emails

Now that we've got that out of the way, one of the technical ways to prevent email gaffes is by delaying emails from sending for a period. Though not foolproof, this helps prevent the occasional mistake made in an email and can help those who accidentally send one before they've finished writing it. You can delay emails in Outlook, Gmail and other services too. In some cases emails can also be delayed for your entire organisation by your IT administrator. This might be something PR agencies and companies might consider, especially if they are often involved in sending emails to large distribution lists.

In Gmail, left click the cog wheel, “Settings” and then the “Labs” tab. Here, search for "Undo Send" and then enable it. Once enabled, Undo Send gives you a 10-second window in which you can undo a sent email. You can change that to five, 20 or 30 seconds by going into Settings and finding the Undo Send section. The same can be done in Outlook by setting up a rule that delays messages for the amount of time desired.

Measure 3 - Beg recipient's IT department to delete email

If you know an email has been sent and you definitely don't want the other person to read it, another way you can try to remove it from existence is by calling the IT department of the organisation you've sent it to and plead for them to delete it. It's very unlikely this will work if your email has been sent to an email address ending in,, or other major webmail providers, as they have policies against allowing this. But if you've emailed an Australian company that manages its own email, for example, then it's worth a shot. Depending on their IT policy – and how they feel about the situation – it might just work. But you'll need to be quick, as the recipient may have already downloaded it from their workplace's mail server.

Measure 4 - Recall the message

Some versions of Outlook allow you to recall messages sent to other email users who use Outlook. The success or failure of a message being recalled depends largely on a recipient's settings in Outlook and also whether they actually want to let you recall it – a reason why this method is probably not the best to use. There's also the fact that recalling a message will generally inform the recipient that the email exists and highlight the fact that you want to recall it.

Measure 5 - Admit defeat and apologise

If all of the aforementioned methods do not work – or you just don't want to try them for whatever reason – then an apology might be in the works. The sooner you apologise the better.

Have other suggestions for how to control the damage? Leave a comment.

twitter This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb


Comment are now closed