Reply All: How To Recover From The Ultimate Email Faux Pas

You made a mistake and now the whole office knows what you really think. Here’s how to manage the situation without fanning the flames.

Reply All: How To Recover From The Ultimate Email Faux Pas
[Image: Flickr user Mike Towber]

It happens to the best of us. You’re annoyed at a colleague’s frequent disregard of deadlines. You forward your frustrating email exchange to a friend with a note that your colleague wouldn’t recognize a deadline if it bit him in the rear end.


You hit send and–whoops! Looks like you hit reply all.

Everyone makes stupid mistakes at some point. “If you can’t admit to ever having a blunder, then you’re not opening your eyes wide enough,” says Richie Frieman, the “Modern Manners Guy” on Quick and Dirty Tips, and author of the new book Reply All… And Other Ways to Tank Your Career. If you’ve done something truly mean-spirited, well, “You’re on your own,” says Frieman. “People may not allow you back on the team. That’s the nature of life.”

But most mistakes are more of the embarrassing variety–those he puts in the “reply all” category of things you wish hadn’t happened, but aren’t going to stop earth from spinning around the sun. You can recover from these, and maybe even solve the original problem if you’re smart about it. Here’s how:

1. Never try to “recall” the email.

Don’t call more attention than necessary to your blunder. Never send an email “recalling” an email. Many emails are deleted, unread, but if you “recall” an email, that’s like putting a flashing neon sign in everyone’s inbox to read the original. Whatever the nature of your transgression, fewer people may notice it than you think. I once received an email after a non-profit event from a woman who was apologizing to everyone for her behavior. I hadn’t seen what she’d done, which made me insanely curious to find out what it was.

2. Apologize in person.

Of course, if you did directly hurt someone, you need to apologize in person and make amends. “It’s a sign of maturity and professionalism to say ‘I know you saw the email–I called you this–I’m sorry about it. Let me buy you coffee to make up for it.’” says Frieman. Most people aren’t used to receiving hearty and sincere apologies. You may be surprised how willing the victim of any mistake is to accept your contrition.

3. Address the actual problem in person.

Then, address the underlying problem with a solution. Many “reply all” type mistakes arise from frustration. In the case of a chronically tardy colleague, maybe you, your colleague and your boss meet to discuss why projects have been delayed. Come to this meeting with a solution that shows you to be a team player. You take a task your colleague finds particularly tricky off his plate, or train someone to help him.


4. Let it go.

Don’t fan the flames. When you do something stupid, sometimes the tendency is to keep bringing it up as a way to show you can laugh at yourself. But what people forget is that time makes everything seem less fraught. Political scandals fade when other things hit the headlines, and likewise, your team will land a major new project soon and “if you don’t harp on it, they won’t harp on it,” says Frieman. So don’t.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at