It seems that as much as email has increased the ease of communication, it has also magnified the potential for potentially disastrous repercussions from simple human errors and “fat-finger syndrome”.

The latest of a long and illustrious list to learn this lesson the hard way has been a member of Aviva’s HR team.  Whilst intending to email one employee to confirm his dismissal, this inattentive HR employee spectacularly emailed all 1,300 members of Aviva’s worldwide Investors team with the equivalent of instructions to clear their desk and get their coat.  Aviva has since had to endure such media headlines as “Top Firm ‘Fires’ Over 1,300 – By Mistake”.  Probably not the image it is trying to portray as one of the main sponsors of this year’s Olympics!

The immediate impact of the error (at least in terms of whether Aviva still has an Investors team) is unlikely to be as dramatic as the headlines suggest.  The email was promptly followed by a second confirming the mistake.  Any immediate panic aside, the employees concerned probably quickly realised they had not been fired.  It is also likely that any employee who decided to treat himself as dismissed by the email would have a hard time convincing a Tribunal either that he was actually dismissed or alternatively that he had suffered any substantial loss.   There is a world of difference between being dismissed on mistaken grounds, when unilateral withdrawal of the notice is not practicable, and being dismissed by mistake, i.e. without intention to do it at all.  In the latter case the public consumption of a massive portion of Humble Pie by the relevant manager/HR person will generally rescue the situation.

This will not however altogether (at all, really) alleviate the embarrassment to Aviva caused by the incident.  Should the person who sent the email therefore be expecting something  similar to pop up any moment in his own inbox?

As mentioned in our post on 20 April 2012, most dismissals for a single act of carelessness are unlikely to be fair.  The type of case where a dismissal for a one off mistake could be fair involve pilots nearly crashing planes or doctors putting patients’ lives at risk, not HR staff sending emails without checking the addressee box.

This is not to say that a carelessly sent email could not lead to a fair dismissal in some circumstances, even without previous warnings.  This is easier to imagine if the result of the mistake were potentially disastrous for the sending organisation, for example because of the sensitive content of the email, and/or if the mistake arose because the sender chose to ignore internal policies and protocols designed to avoid such errors.  I am reminded of the case of a client’s employee who inadvertently sent to “Users All” within the business an email containing the single word “Bollocks”.  This was in clear breach of the client’s rules on these things and though it was an entirely appropriate riposte to something sent by his intended recipient, a significant sense of humour failure on the employer’s part still saw him off the premises that day.  This seems unlikely to be the case for Aviva.

In the circumstances, I would expect the sender of the Aviva email to receive (a) a warning and (b) a great deal of ribbing for the foreseeable future.  At least he will not need to be reminded to double check his email recipients next time!