Accidentally sent personal email from work account
April 14, 2018 10:07 AM   Subscribe

I accidentally sent a political and somewhat inappropriate personal email intended for a friend to a professional contact at another company from my work email account. I quickly realized my mistake and sent a second message clarifying (and tried to recall the messages), but now I'm extremely anxious about getting in trouble and wondering what to do now.

So yeah, as the title implies, I was having a general political discussion with a friend via email while at work (obviously not something I should be doing in the first place), and somehow accidentally sent one of my replies to a person at a different organization with whom I’ve emailed once or twice in the past for work, but with whom I have no actual work relationship. Outlook just auto-completed the wrong recipient in the "to" field and I didn't catch it until the moment I hit send. The contents of the email exchange were not super appropriate – obviously politics are polarizing at the best of times, but there were a few off-color jokes and some swearing in there too. All the really questionable stuff was written by my friend and not me, though that’s hardly exonerating since I was still responding to it.

After just about puking with panic when I realized what I’d done, I quickly sent another message explaining that message wasn’t intended for her and that I was sorry, and that it was a mistake, and asked her to please disregard the message. Then - still panicking - I tried to recall the messages through Outlook, despite pretty much knowing that wouldn’t work, and so now she will have four messages in her inbox - my two messages, and two recall attempts.

This was late on Friday afternoon, and I still haven't heard anything back, and now I’m pretty much sick with anxiety about what might come of this and whether I should just leave things as they are and hope she just has a laugh at my expense and moves on, or whether I should try calling or emailing her again on Monday to acknowledge how inappropriate this was, and to apologize more fully. I guess my fear is that she’s offended by the content and escalates this back to someone in my company, at which point I have no idea what would happen, but I don’t think they’d be at all happy. When I forwarded the message in question to a few friends and my spouse, they all just said it would be a very weird message to accidentally receive, and it would be hard to know what to make of it.

I have a pretty good reputation at my job and am considered helpful and not someone they would be looking to discipline, but I’m still worried as it’s clearly inappropriate content, my work is kind of strict about rules, and I was doing it on company time.

What should I do? What are the odds someone gets a random email like that from a stranger and tries to escalate the situation? What would you do if you received a random email like this? What are my best odds of this just going away without making it worse??
posted by noboru_wataya to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I should try calling or emailing her again on Monday to acknowledge how inappropriate this was, and to apologize more fully. I guess my fear is that she’s offended by the content and escalates this back to someone in my company

She already has an apology and explanation from you - there's nothing more that you can say, and if you keep sending her messages you'll make this weirder than it already is. I know it's hard, but you need to step back, tell yourself you've done what you can, and wait. The odds are that on Monday she'll respond with a "no biggie" or not respond at all - people are, in general, conflict averse.

What would you do if you received a random email like this?

It would depend on the content. In most cases I would just let it go, perhaps with a message that said something like "No problem - we all make mistakes sometimes." Because we all do. If it contained bigoted content, though, I would consider escalating (depending on my work environment).
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:17 AM on April 14, 2018 [11 favorites]

I have received several personal emails by mistake from people. I never did anything about it and would not have dreamed of escalating it. As long as this email was not full of, like, racism or homophobia or actual violent planning, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will do anything about it - never mind someone at another org calling up your manager to rat on you.

People do this all the time. It sucks that it happened, you shouldn't have intense discussions at work on work email, etc, but this is not something that is unusual.

Unless your company is very, very strict indeed, I think they won't have any interest in disciplining you over this, either, unless there is some clear link to poor work performance - which it doesn't sound like there is. If you were always goofing off and they were like "this is the last straw", that would be another thing, but if you're a good worker, honestly, that's the kind of thing where maybe your manager says, "Noboru, it has been brought to my attention that you sent a work email on company time, don't do that any more".

It is extremely unlikely that anything will come of this.

The emails I got were from people at my actual org. I cannot even imagine getting one from somewhere else, going to the trouble of figuring out who to contact and then telling on them like a child. Also, unless your manager is a real weirdo, if someone calls them up and is like "I got a misdirected email from one of your staff where she was talking about politics on company time, and she used profanity, you should discipline her", your manager is just going to be all, "ugh, this person is getting into my work business with this stupid complaint, what a freak".

In one case, I sent an email saying, "this went to the wrong person", in another I didn't say anything because the content, which was right wing, kind of annoyed me.

Let it alone and try to forget about it.
posted by Frowner at 10:19 AM on April 14, 2018 [19 favorites]

If by "off color" you just mean, "jokes about our gross president and our creeper Congress" or something, I would also not worry about that. We have front page news speculation about really pretty gross sexual stuff all the time now, cracking wise about it isn't the best choice for work email but isn't a big deal.
posted by Frowner at 10:21 AM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I guess the content matters here, so basically my friend facetiously called called me a "right-wing Nazi piece of shit" and jokingly asked if I'd bought my daughter a Hitler youth shirt (i'm cringing just typing this). The joke is that I'm very liberal minded and the furthest thing from a Nazi. Then in his next email he apologized if he'd offended me for something he'd said earlier in the exchange. I thought the juxtaposition of calling me a nazi and then apologizing if he'd offended me was funny out of context, so I stripped away all the conversation, leaving only those two messages from him, and pointed it out it was amusing to see those emails back to back without context.

I then had a paragraph or two that made it really clear I'm not a right-wing nazi piece of shit, as my reply to him was mostly focused on how I agree with people that are passionate about women's and minority rights, as well as those focused on economic reform or the environment, and find it frustrating how people passionate about these things tend to argue with one another and focus on the areas where they disagree, instead of acknowledging they agree about the vast majority of things.

It feels dumb trying to explain this, but yeah....he calls me a nazi piece of shit and my subsequent reply makes it obvious i'm not, but the whole thing would just be so damn weird to get in your inbox from a stranger at another company.
posted by noboru_wataya at 10:29 AM on April 14, 2018

We all have personal lives and we all make mistakes. The vast majority of your colleagues will read your follow-up message, send both to the read mail bin, and never think about the matter again. Even if it involves complicated inside jokes about Nazis. Doing anything else only makes their work harder.

My suggestion is to let it go and not mention again unless you wind up across a reception cocktail party table from the person.
posted by eotvos at 10:35 AM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes, it would be weird, but low level, not my problem weird. Getting the apology would remove the mystery and I would stop thinking about it.

If I worked with this person and thought that they were pro-Nazi, it would impact my relationship to the extent that we had one. If, as in your case, it was clear that it was just some weird joke, I would figure that we don't share the same sense of humor and then go back to my own life.

Any further apologies or efforts to engage on this are a distraction from my desire to go back to focusing on my own life. More efforts to explain just create a demand for me to do the emotional labor to calm to you down which is annoying for me.

A strong vote to let it go, don't mention it again - even if you do see me at a cocktail party, unless I bring it up first. (I am far more likely to have forgotten about than you are - do you really want to remind me? And another apology or any anxiety from you become emotional labor for me about something I don't care about.
posted by metahawk at 10:47 AM on April 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Whatever damage this is going to cause (likely little if any) is done, so the best thing you can do is just accept that it happened and move on. If anything comes of it you can cross that bridge when you get there. Also, consider using your personal email account rather than your work one for this kind of thing.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:53 AM on April 14, 2018

It doesn't seem that weird (let me tell you , the emails I got by mistake were really weird!!). It seems like it's obviously an email in which you respond to his off color joke, a joke which does not reflect your political beliefs at all. Even to get to his part of the email, in any case, the reader would read your part first. Basically, they're going to get it and think, "this is a joking exchange that was misdirected", and I cannot imagine that they're going to take it any further at all. Most people understand that "giving each other shit" is part of friendships, and that sometimes one's friends say things that are in slightly poor taste but are basically innocent.
posted by Frowner at 10:54 AM on April 14, 2018

I vote for just letting it go. The recipient is probably relieved that someone sent one to her, rather than she made the mistake herself. Many people have a bit of fear around sending mistaken emails.
posted by Vaike at 11:45 AM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I work in a pretty liberal environment but if I recieved the email I'd find it entertaining at best and vaguely amusing at worst. Unless you're in a super conservative environment I don't really even think I there's anything offensive in the email. If anything maybe the person who recieves it will chuckle to herself for a second and move on to the rest of her Monday morning inbox.
posted by winterportage at 12:46 PM on April 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

The best thing you can do is let it go - and for the love of all that is reasonable STOP using your work email for personal matters and ESPECIALLY personal matters of a political nature.
posted by urbanlenny at 1:15 PM on April 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

I've had these horrible work anxiety weekends, so apologies in advance for writing a bit of a novel here.

I think one thing that might help your peace of mind would be to consider possible courses of action.

Option 1 is to confess to your supervisor. The best way to frame this would be, "I made a mistake and I want to let you know now so you're prepared just in case they reach out to you. It's unlikely, but I just don't want you to be taken by surprise." You could tell the story, including reassuring details such as: "While I was on my morning/lunch break..." and "This was a rare instance -- I don't know why my friend used my work address instead of my home address, and I've since asked them not to, but since it was right there in my work inbox, I replied even though I normally save personal email to do at home" and "sorry for wasting your time on this, but I just wanted you to be prepared in case Joan calls."

The pros of option 1 are that you made a mistake but immediately took responsibility. You were transparent about it with your boss, and you prioritized making sure they were prepared over hiding your own embarrassment. It will minimize them thinking "what else are you doing that I don't know about?" The cons are that you will definitely have to have a conversation with your supervisor about this whole minor thing, when maybe you could otherwise avoid wasting everyone's time on this. If there are mandatory consequences for certain things, or if they're very rulebound, they might have to e.g., file a written warning. (I highly doubt this!) And if this seems really minor to them, they might feel like they wish you hadn't bothered them with such a minor pecadillo.

Option 2 is just to prepare what to say but not pre-emptively say it. If you go this route, the content would be similar to the one above, but I'd throw in an apology for any awkwardness they felt at hearing from this third party, and some extra reassurance about how rare and isolated this is.

The pro of Option 2 is that you may never have to have a conversation about the email. The con is that if they do find out, they may wonder what else has happened that hasn't been reported to them. But if you have good trust with your supervisor and a good track record of productivity, they may not really care even if they find out second-hand.

In my opinion, you should do Option 2 unless you think it is likely that the third party will send it to your supervisor or if you have a supervisor who would actually like to know. I have had one supervisor whom I probably would've told even if I didn't think it'd get back to her, but the rest have been more like "I'm not here to babysit you, don't bother me with petty confessions about, like, being seven minutes late. I don't care about stuff like that; just get your work done and we're cool." It's because so many of my supervisors have been in that "I'm not here to police you" category that I probably wouldn't tell a supervisor unless I thought that this was going to be something they'd have to deal with due to the third party reaching out.

So I think you have to do some guessing about how likely it is that this third party will report it to them. If the third party is at all friends with your boss, they may pass it along out of loyalty to them. It would be very easy to forward it to your boss with a "lol" or a "??" or a "no big deal but FYI" comment. On the other hand, if the third party is completely disconnected from your boss, that's much less likely. If they're more of a peer to you than to your boss (e.g., if you are both entry-level employees), then I think they're much less likely to send it to your boss. If they're a vendor or someone really random who doesn't deal with your company much, I think it's unlikely that they'll send it over.

In all cases, I'd try to shake off this excessive shame you feel. Yeah, you screwed up, but you screwed up on the level of "carelessness" and "minor breach of professionalism," not on the level of "horribly offensive content" and "major legal liability to the company." Everyone occasionally has lapses in judgment, and if it goes along with a track record showing that you're a hard worker who uses their time well and that you know how to behave professionally in tough situations, then this is unlikely to be a big deal. It'll just be a minor goof up. It might necessitate a "you know not to use company email for stuff like this right? And you're not going to do it again, right?" kind of conversation, or maybe not even that, especially if you already conveyed that you get it.

But if you're still in a shame spiral, then your boss might wonder if there is more here than meets the eye (otherwise why would you be acting so guilty?). I've learned this one the hard way -- when you're guilt-stricken, some people understand that it's because you're a perfectionist who is hard on yourself, while others think that you must be feeling that guilty for a real-world reason. So try to put it in perspective before Monday. People make mistakes; this isn't a big deal. I'm not sure if this applies to you, but in my experience, it's easy for things like this to trigger imposter syndrome or an inner shame core if you have one ("I always knew people would find out how bad I am one day"), but this is really not a big deal, and the horrible way you're feeling might be an opportunity to give that part of yourself some gentle reassurance like "you're no worse than anyone else, you know." :)

In any case, I'd be extra scrupulous at work for a while. If you don't tell your boss, even if they don't say anything, I'd still assume that the third party told them and that they might be lightly keeping an eye on whether you're constantly writing personal email in the office. But since you say you have a good track record, I wouldn't worry. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. :) One way I let go of excessive work stress is to watch a tense movie, like a thriller or heist, because worries about a silly email pale next to worries about, like, will they escape from the mob hit-man? :)
posted by salvia at 1:16 PM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

And yeah, this is why the universe created smartphones with 3G / 4G service, so that you can use your down time to do whatever you're going to do without using the company's computer, email servers, or internet service! :)
posted by salvia at 1:20 PM on April 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I work in a large organisation where people inadvertently do this all the time, usually by hitting 'Reply All' whilst including personal information not intended for an audience of 2,500 plus (shortly after which gallops the desperate recall attempt), and I only ever cringe and think, "There but for the grace of St Isidore go I..." If I get a stray email, I delete* it unless it seems necessary to tell the sender that the intended recipient didn't get the mail ("Hi, there! I'd be okay with picking up the milk but I'm not Christine and I'm thirty miles away!"), or if someone hasn't figured out s/he is continuing to address an audience of thousands. So I'd have just deleted your message whilst, on the basis of what you've just explained about its content, ruefully thinking I'd like to be involved in the conversation over a coffee. (Seriously? You're worried about someone reading that you're wishing there was more unity between different groups fighting for the rights of women and minorities, and for economic reform that addresses environmental issues? Is this The Onion asking MeFi a question?)

*I am quite curious, however, so I do read all stray emails with interest unless they're very personal, in which case a sense of honour makes me stop. Otherwise I love email waifs and strays!
posted by Lilypod at 1:51 PM on April 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Like others have said, it's normal to dread a mistake like this and I'm sure the recipient totally sympathises. Plus, most people are nice and like to help and this is a simple way she can do you a nice favour and start her week off feeling good. I bet come Monday morning you'll have a no worries, all deleted response.

It would take a seriously mean and nasty person to take offence at what you've explained is a mistake and to contact your organisation with the aim of getting you in trouble. And even then you wouldn't necessarily be in trouble as I think a third party would think such a response extreme and just give you a 'yeah, don't do that' warning.
posted by kitten magic at 8:35 PM on April 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'd laugh and maybe roll my eyes at a message like this, depending on my relationship with the person. Most adults who use e-mail have had some variation of this experience at one time or another. (Ask me how my personal policy of never, ever snarking on anyone--no matter how richly they deserve it--on work e-mail came about... if I survived that experience, you can survive this one.)

Seriously, the recipient would have to be not only a very humourless person but someone who disliked you personally and had the time and energy to bother ratting on you to your boss, especially after seeing your follow ups and your efforts to recall the original. The odds of these three things co-existing are pretty slim.
posted by rpfields at 10:05 PM on April 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I appreciate all the responses everyone! I think I'll probably still feel very anxious about this until it's clear that nothing is going to come of it, but reading these answers has made me realize that objectively speaking, it's highly unlikely a random stranger would go to the effort of escalating something like this, even if she was slightly put off by the content. I think the incredibly venomous political landscape right now has me on edge, assuming random people are likely to be angry and itching for a confrontation. I think I spend too much time on the internet!
posted by noboru_wataya at 7:37 AM on April 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

What relationship does this third party have with your organization and your boss?
posted by salvia at 8:48 AM on April 15, 2018

Salvia - no direct relationship at all with my boss, and only tangential with my organization. Basically she works in finance for another company in the same industry as my own, but as far as I'm aware she wouldn't work directly with my company much at all, and certainly wouldn't even know who my boss is. She would probably work with/near people who might have a more direct relationship with me and my organization, but she'd be a bit removed.
posted by noboru_wataya at 9:03 AM on April 15, 2018

Essentially we are complete strangers - I don't think she would know anything about me or anyone in my department, but could easily speak with people at her office who do, should she choose to pursue it.
posted by noboru_wataya at 9:04 AM on April 15, 2018

Ah, then I agree that it's highly unlikely anything will come of this. If they were friends, it would be a bit more likely.
posted by salvia at 10:19 AM on April 15, 2018

If I got this, I’d probably read it twice because the 1st read would baffle me. Then I’d figure out how we know each other. After I figured out you’re a rarely contacted business acquaintence, I’d shake my head and know you sent it to me in error. I’d shoot you an email saying no biggie Herr Hitler and giggle a little while secretly being so happy I didn’t do that. Chances are nothing will come of it. Don’t call, your apology emails are fine.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 2:45 PM on April 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

I don't think you need to worry that this person will bother taking time out of their day to even bother to try and figure out how they would complain to someone about this. They will probably forget all about it as soon as they see your explanation that it was sent accidentally and get back to catching up on the rest of their email.

I’m still worried as it’s clearly inappropriate content, my work is kind of strict about rules, and I was doing it on company time

You do need to worry about your habit of emailing your friends from your work account. You know your company can look at everything you email, right? Cut it out now. Making a gmail account is free, do it and send a last email to all your personal contacts from your work account asking them to send all personal email to your new account.
posted by yohko at 7:06 PM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

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