U.S. Diplomats Warned Not To “Reply-to-All”

13 Jan
January 13, 2009

The State Department email system must have been brought to its knees.  When Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy wrote to every U.S. diplomat world-wide about the email system, he sent it by cable.

U.S. diplomats around the globe were warned by cable last week that they could suffer "disciplinary actions" for using the "reply to all" function on email with large distribution lists.  I have written about the dangers of reply-to-all before — leaked information, wasted time, embarrassment and so on.  This is the first time I have seen a formal warning that relates reply-to-all to job performance. 

Will it be a trend?  What caused this stern action?

Last week, an email storm caused by Reply-to-All nearly knocked out the State Department's email system, according to the Associated Press.  This is what happened:

  1. A blank email was sent to many people on the department's global address list
  2. Some used "reply-to-all" to demand to be removed from the list.
  3. Others used 'reply all' to tell their co-workers, in often less than diplomatic language, to stop responding to the entire group.
  4. Some then compounded the problem by trying to recall their initial replies.
  5. The recall generated another round of messages to the group.

A terse note was sent via cable to all State Department employees — yes cable, not email.  The Associated Press got a copy of the cable and reported:

The cable orders employees to “take immediate action” to ensure they and their colleagues are “aware of the negative impact of hitting ‘reply all’ ” and to delete e-mails addressed to large numbers of people that they might receive in error.

“Anyone who disregards these instructions will be subject to disciplinary actions,” Patrick Kennedy wrote in the cable, which begins: “Please ensure widest distribution of this message.”

Email storms are not the only problem caused by abuse of Reply-to-All.  A few months ago, I co-authored a whitepaper for Permessa Corporation on the impact of Reply-to-All.

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