I'm going to write a novel in which World War III breaks out after a high-placed diplomat accidentally hits "Reply all" to a sensitive e-mail.
Actually, since I live in Los Angeles, I think I'll write a screenplay instead. In fact, I'm pretty much ready to start taking pitch meetings on the concept right now. I'm thinking You've Got Mail meets Dr. Strangelove.
One of my favorite "Reply all" stories happened to the general counsel of a company I worked for. His wife forwarded him a dinner invitation from some friends in which she wrote, "Honey, would you like to go out with the Randolphs this weekend?" My friend replied, "Ugh. Do we have to?" and he hit "Reply all." He then received an e-mail from the Randolphs that simply said, "No, you don't have to."
I know from talking to friends in the corporate world that every company has its own "Reply all" nightmare. Sometimes the results are fiscally disastrous, with many of these incidents actually ending up as a central element in litigation. Most cases, however, are simply humiliating and a little bit funny. I had my own "Reply all" incident about eight years ago.
One company that I worked for a while back was undergoing a series of severe staff reductions. Every time a wave of layoffs hit, somebody somewhere would inevitably send out an e-mail to all employees that was bittersweet in nature and borderline unprofessional in its tone. Without exception, each time one of these e-mails hit, I would get an angry call from our CEO wanting to know why I couldn't control the e-mail distribution.
Despite the fact that I neither managed nor understood our global IT platform, whenever he called I'd assure him we were doing everything within our power to limit these offensive missives. This seemed to calm him down, but then one day things got out of control.
An employee named Ghislaine sent out a nasty-gram to the entire staff about being laid off. One woman in my own department replied to Ghislaine and she accidentally hit "Reply all." Here's the opening line from the e-mail to Ghislaine that went to all employees worldwide, including our CEO:
"Many of us who have been here for several years feel the sadness of seeing so many great associates leave the firm - it's nothing like it used to be."
After enduring a five-minute tirade from the corner office, I called my offending employee and read her the riot act. And then she served up the coup de grace. She sent me and the CEO an apology e-mail, which was appropriate. Unfortunately, she used spell check - which had a field day with the name Ghislaine. I share that e-mail with you verbatim:
"Considering the inadvertent and unintentional companywide distribution of my personal note of goodbye to Histamine, I wanted to apologize for anything said that could have been misconstrued or misrepresented.
"After having worked with Histamine a great deal in the early days, my note to her was a personal one of encouragement and human kindness for a coworker who was leaving the company."
Perhaps she got a job at Bayer or Pfizer, where they have a better appreciation of her medicinal attributes.
Don Spetner is EVP of corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.