Everyone’s done it: hit “reply all” when they meant to just hit “reply,” sent a snarky email to someone other than the trusted colleague it was meant for, or attached the wrong file—a confidential one—to an email going outside the organization. In a world where interoffice communication is instantaneous, it’s incredibly easy to make an error when you’re tired, overwhelmed, or unfocused. We’re only human, after all. Because of the sheer volume of emails most people send, it’s nearly inevitable that you’ll have a snafu at some point. The difference between an incident that blows over in 24 hours versus a drawn-out saga? How you handle it. Here’s everything you need to know about how to handle an email emergency, no matter the situation.
If it was a minor mistake:
Not all email mistakes require action, according to Marla Harr, a former HR professional who is now a business etiquette consultant. “If the reply doesn’t contain anything confidential or inappropriate, I would just let it go,” she says. “The last thing people need is another email in their inbox.” Most people don’t even read all of their emails, so if you accidentally cc’d someone on a totally innocuous message, made a spelling error, or did something similarly harmless, don’t sweat it.
If you feel like you need to say something even though the infraction was minor, Harr says you should keep it short and sweet. “If it was just a normal email responding to general business, for example, such as an update on a project or asking a question, I’d suggest you email the person and let them know you added their email address by mistake and to please disregard the email,” she says. This is a considerate way of letting an unintended recipient know that you caught your mistake and will make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future.
If it was something major:
So, let’s say you said something unkind about a coworker, sent the sales contract for another company to a competing organization, or mistakenly shared something way personal with the wrong person. Harr’s biggest advice in these more serious situations is to fess up as soon as you realize what you did. Why? Because management hates being blindsided. “I would recommend notifying your supervisor immediately to get support and understanding of how serious the mistake could be. If damage control is needed you want to start that as soon as possible,” she notes. Considering how quickly emails can make the rounds, it’s a good idea to take action as soon as possible.
If you get an email you weren’t supposed to receive:
In this situation, it can be tough to know whether you should acknowledge it or not. The best course of action? “Reply and let them know you received the email and ask them politely to delete your address from further streams,” says Harr. If the email contains sensitive information, the procedure is the same, but Harr recommends adding that you’ve deleted the message since it’s “confidential” or “private.” “Using these words lets them know you will not share the content,” she says.
Lastly, Harr emphasizes that you shouldn’t be afraid to say you’re sorry when you’re the one who made the mistake. In fact, that’s probably the most important thing you can do. “When you apologize, you acknowledge that you did something wrong and then work at repairing the damage,” she suggests. And don’t just shoot off a random grouping of words hoping that they’ll have the intended effect. “Apologies should be thoughtfully conceived, clearly stated, and genuine,” she says. Though an apology via phone call is ideal, she adds that if you’re going to do it via email, one to two sentences is a good length. Your message should convey a concise explanation of what you did that was wrong, that you understand the repercussions of your actions, and that you’re not making excuses. It might be slightly painful to go through this process, but the silver lining is that fessing up will probably make you double and even triple check your emails before hitting “send” in the future.