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I used to be a contractor PM for a small outsourcing company.

One sunny day, I was discussing with my colleague, a branch head, some unpleasant issues about how we optimize our expenses, shifting people, etc. Not a cheating, not a fraud, but clearly something that "should not go out these walls".

It was an important discussion, and I wanted to CC to a top-level manager to get his approval on our further actions.

Accidentally, I have placed a name of a customer instead of my boss' name and sent the message.

Luckily, it has nothing to do with that particular customer and his project that I led, but still, I have never recovered after that story. Everyone, including the top manager, told me, "don't worry, it happens to everyone", but at the end of the day I have asked to resign from the customer's project and never got further projects with that company.

That was, indeed, my biggest mistake for all my career. I was doubtful for quite a while if I could ask this question here, but now I think I can.

I'm thinking I could have recovered from that situation.

How to correct myself after sending a sensitive information to a wrong person?


Update, to be most precise.
(1) The cost of actions the company has to do (staff and workflow re-arrangements) was quite comparable to entire profit I have earned for the company (I've been working just for several months).
(2) Yes, I'm a kind of maximalist by character, and such failure is not compatible with my views on the business. If I were my boss, I would do the same: say, "it happens to everyone", and avoid assigning further projects to that person.
(3) By "to recover" I understand an attempt to restore trust by the customer and colleagues. Other aspects are out of scope of this site.

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lucky you if that is your biggest mistakes, I have seen much worse –  superM Feb 8 '13 at 21:25
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You say that "everyone" told you you shouldn't worry about it. Why didn't you believe them? Have there been any bad effects other than your own feelings? Could you be overreacting to something minor? –  Keith Thompson Feb 8 '13 at 21:32
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I do wonder if "I have asked to resign from the customer's project..." is as much a career-limiting move as the original faux-pas, in that it suggests to management that you can't handle dealing with the consequences of a mistake. I don't see how the customer won't trust you any more, unless the mail contained actual information that would have broken that trust. Obvious examples being revealing dishonesty or malpractice in your company's relationship with them, offensive material, or deliberately revealing confidential material for gain. –  Julia Hayward Sep 18 '13 at 16:07

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

You write:

Everyone, including the top manager, told me, "don't worry, it happens to everyone", ...

My advice is to believe them. Based on what you've written here (and there could be other details we don't have), I think you're overreacting, particularly in asking to resign from the customer's project.

I've done something similar on at least one occasion. I did a reply-all to an e-mail and mentioned some company-internal information that shouldn't have gone to everyone on the Cc list. It was a mistake, it was pointed out to me, I was a bit embarrassed -- and I moved on, being more careful from that point forward.

It sounds like this happened some time ago, so communicating with the customer at this point probably wouldn't be useful. There's a very good chance the customer just ignored it at the time, and bringing it to the customer's attention again is unlikely to improve the situation.

If it had happened just recently, the best course of action would be to ask your manager what to do. Maybe a quick followup to the customer explaining what happened and politely asking them to delete the e-mail would have been appropriate. I wouldn't communicate with the customer about it without checking with management first.

Consider this. If you were a top manager yourself, and someone working under you had made this kind of honest mistake, how would you react? Would you angrily remove them from the project, or would you just tell them "don't worry, it happens to everyone", and do what's necessary (if anything!) to clean things up? Assuming the latter, why be harder on yourself over this than you'd be on someone else -- or than your manager is being on you?

Ask yourself whether your reaction to this mistake is causing more harm than the mistake itself.

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@bytebuster: Ah, you never mentioned that. Based on your question and the comments, I had gotten the impression that the only real effect was embarrassment. You might want to update your question to clarify the objective severity of the situation. It makes a difference in how we answer it. –  Keith Thompson Feb 10 '13 at 4:00

Focus on the value you're delivering today and will deliver in the future. Everybody makes mistakes, but the fact is that you're still valuable to your employer and your clients because you are good at your job. What you need to do is focus on how you deliver more value in your current situation, whatever that situation is. The past is done, and doesn't change what value you can deliver today.

In the immediate aftermath of such a mistake, the answer is the same, but it's worth facing up to the situation, contacting the people involved, ensuring that there are no secrets left to come out of the woodwork and bite you later (perhaps even informing the client which was involved, especially if it's possible that the client you emailed could identify the client it was about), and ensure all the pain is in the past. Face it like a boss, and then get on with doing some awesome work.

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Keeping in mind that information sent electronically is out there, and you're not going to get it back, I think the best way to resolve this for yourself is to ask yourself what you hope to accomplish.

Do you want to save face? If so, the best policy might be honesty. Email them again, tell them it was intended for someone else, and apologize. Hopefully they'll consider an honest admission of the mistake to offset the mistake itself.

Do you want to prevent the further spread of the information? Again, since you can't get electronic info 'back', your only option here is to email them again, tell them what happened, and ask if they wouldn't mind deleting the email and forgetting about it. Of course there's no guarantee that they will.

Remember though that contacting them again might just get them to re-read the email, and in so doing you're just drawing more attention to the information. You could consider just letting it go, knowing that the customer probably realized that it was sent in error, and deleted it....

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A good way to move beyond is to learn from this experience and set email rules.

I have rules set in Outlook which add a 5 minute delay to any email which is sent to an outside domain. I also have a rule set which CCs the Exec Assistants and delays any emails which are sent to our Cxx level execs within my company. This gives their Exec Assistants a heads up on what they may be having to deal with in a minute and the delays provide me protection that I hit send and realize there was a major typo or I should/shouldn't have copied that person I can still stop the email before it is sent.

It is easier to stop an email before it is sent than it is to recall a message especially for addresses outside your server.

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Everybody makes mistakes. The only people who don't screw up once in a while are those who don't even try.

What sets the competent apart from the incompetent is how we deal with our mistakes.

When you make a mistake, the right way to act is:

  1. Minimize damage quickly and effectively
  2. Inform those it concerns, and show that you have the situation under control (unless you don't, which would be a new mistake which needs to be acted on)
  3. Take precautions to avoid the mistake from happening in the future
  4. When prompted to give a report about the incident, focus on how you reacted, not on apologizing.

Wrong appoach would be to:

  1. Pretend that nothing has happened
  2. When the situation can't be ignored, helplessly ask the superior what to do
  3. Apologize, but don't actually do anything actively to fix the mistake
  4. Do pointless self-punishment, like resigning from a post without being forced to do so.
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