Fixing the fallout from an errant out-of-office email

A techie closes down the email account of a laid-off company employee -- and an overlooked detail creates a PR nightmare

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A few more coworkers came by and were wondering why they had received a message from Jennifer saying the same thing. I was puzzled: The out-of-office message usually sends a response to emails, not a broadcast to the company. We didn't want word of her layoff to spread too quickly, so I started digging to see who had received the email.

Everyone in our office reported receiving the email. As I was scratching my head and wondering what happened, Jennifer's clients started calling in and asking why Jennifer was no longer with the company. This wasn't good.

I called the parent company's tech support department trying to figure out what happened and who had received the email. More calls about Jennifer started pouring in; some of them were angry clients contacting our CEO directly. Tech support couldn't think of a reason why the email would have been broadcast. They were trying to trace who the email went to but could not figure it out quickly.

I called to skip my birthday lunch and contacted my afternoon part-time job, letting them know I wouldn't make it that day. At one point, our company's CEO got on the phone and started yelling at the parent company's tech support. Tech support started escalating the case as high as it would go. Then, Jennifer herself called in, threatening to sue and demanding to know why her mother received an email saying she was no longer with the company before she had even told her.

After three hours of investigation, we figured out what had happened.

When I had set a start and end date for the out-of-office message, I had accidentally typed in the previous year for the start date (such as 2008 instead of 2009). The email software, in all its user-unfriendliness, had responded to all emails sent to Jennifer in the last year with the out-of-office message. The message was sent to Jennifer's friends, family, clients, and more. Jennifer had also apparently subscribed to a few Yahoo groups with her work email (including one for general fans of dogs), and the notice that she no longer had a job was sent to those groups as well. It was a PR disaster.

No one at tech support had any idea the email software would respond to backdating the out-of-office message in that way. I could only imagine the damage control that had to be done, none of which I knew any details about. I was fortunate not to get fired that day for a simple typo. No one ever spoke of the incident again. I continued to work there for a few more months until I received a full-time offer from a great company. As for the email software, I've never seen it again.

The main lesson I learned is remember to check the details. Even the tiniest element can have a very large impact.

This story, "Fixing the fallout from an errant out-of-office email," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at InfoWorld.com.

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