The E-Mail That Brought down a Company

How much thought do you give to everyday actions? When you write an e-mail, how much consideration do you put into who is in the “To” and “CC” fields? When you include attachments, how often do you double-check the size before sending to ensure it won’t overload a user with a restricted mailbox size? And when you “Reply to all,” how much time do you spend perusing the included recipients before sending? Hopefully, after reading this, you will spend a little more time.

Occasionally I get errant e-mails. When that happens, I do what a sensible person does: I delete it. Unfortunately, when you work with thousands of people, not everyone is sensible. An e-mail was accidentally sent to the entire company requesting an update to a distribution list. It wasn’t long until people were replying-to-all asking to be removed from the distribution list (mistake number one). After those started flooding the inboxes of the entire company, you get the brilliant people who reply-to-all, telling everyone to stop replying to all – because that will solve the problem (mistake number two)!

To compound the issue, since so many people were included on the e-mail, the size of the e-mail was getting larger. The company had a 2G restriction on mailbox sizes. I consistently yet precariously sat at 1.98G. When a dreaded e-mail came in over 2MB, I would end up in e-mail jail. Being bombarded with “Remove me” and “Stop replying to all” e-mails, I couldn’t stay out of e-mail jail, even with filter rules set up to get those annoying e-mails out of my inbox!

A couple of hours into the debacle, I noticed those were the only e-mails I was getting. Yep, somehow this e-mail chain brought down servers, and inter-company e-mails were no longer being delivered – well, except the ones no one wanted. This outage lasted over 6 hours. And in a company like this, e-mail was critical to getting work done. Productivity ground to a halt. Raining Mail

While the company wasn’t permanently brought down, it did cost a lot of resource time (aka money) because people didn’t think before sending. Not only was there a loss in productivity, there was the cost of filtering out that e-mail at the server so more wouldn’t fill up our inboxes plus the cost of restoring the server. This never would have happened if people ignored the e-mail or responded only to the original sender. So before you send your next e-mail, take these questions into consideration:

Who really needs to know? Before you waste people’s time receiving, reading, and deleting yet another e-mail they don’t need, think about who needs the information. If an e-mail chain was started to resolve an issue, and someone solves it, do you really need to reply to all with “Thank you,” or can you respond to just the person who solved it? Large distributions can be helpful when you need to keep a group of people current with information, but as soon as that time has passed, stop using the entire distribution. When sending out an initial e-mail, limit it to those who the information is pertinent. Try to avoid including extraneous people.

What unspoken messages are you sending? If you are directing an e-mail to one person but include others on the e-mail, carefully consider who is included and how that key recipient will take it. Maybe everyone you have included really does need to be in the know, but pause and ask yourself before sending. If you have included a person’s boss, depending on the nature of the e-mail, that person may feel it’s an escalation.

Is e-mail the right form of communication? Sometimes you should consider whether you should be communicating through a different medium. I’m bad at this, but perhaps talking in person would be more effective than an e-mail, especially if the message could be misinterpreted.

Think before e-mailing. Remember, your actions could have unintended consequences, from wasting people’s time to bringing down the e-mail of an entire company. Like any tool, e-mail can be misused and create havoc.

What other unintended consequences has e-mail caused you?

Jana Axline is Chief Project Officer at Project Genetics and the author of Becoming You. Through her leadership musings, she inspires audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Project Genetics.

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