How You Can Stop the Abuse of Reply to All

Posted on August 14, 2012 · Posted in Individual Solutions, Organizational Solutions

Reply to All: probably the most hated feature of Email. How do I know? Because whenever I work with clients to reduce Email Overload, one request pops up right at the beginning:

Can we put a stop to the abuse of Reply All?

Yes, you can. But before I talk about solutions, let’s consider why anyone would misuse Reply to All in the first place, if they hate it so? Part of the problem, and the reason the feature is retained, is that it is really about enabling two very different functions:

  1. Conversation: When communicating within  a small team, it often makes perfect sense to keep them all copied via Reply to All.
  2. Mass mailing: When dealing with messages sent to hundreds of people (often everyone in the organization, what we call over here “NATO distribution”) , Reply All is the devil’s tool.

Why, then, do people use RTA when reading a mass mail message? I can think of some different causes:

  • Hurricane

    Human error. People do accidentally hit RTA when they were planning to hit Reply, sometimes to their great regret, embarrassment, or worse.

  • The statistics of folly. In a company with 50,000 people there are bound to be a few who don’t think before they act; it takes just one to flood the mailboxes of the other 49,999. Which can lead to…
  • An Email Storm. This happens when one silly message sent to ALL results in some recipients protesting – and copying ALL on the protest, leading to more protests and so on. This can lead to hundreds, thousands, even millions of messages and has been known to crash a company’s mail servers; my friend Col. Marksteiner of the US Air Force describes the effect of such a storm in a military base. The motivation of these “RTA-squared” senders can vary, from thoughtlessness to a misguided desire to educate everybody (there is a good analysis in this Wall Street Journal article).

So – what can you do to solve this issue in your organization?

A lot, that’s what. Take your pick:

  • Set a cultural norm, and educate people to respect it. Whether by top-down guidance and role modeling or by bottom-up “group contract” development, you need everyone to internalize that replying to all in a mass mailing is harmful and will not be tolerated in your organization.
  • Install software that intercepts the sender at the right moment. For example, Sperry Software’s Reply To All Monitor Add-In for Microsoft Outlook pops a confirmation request when a sender clicks Reply to All. Or you might make your own tool to intercept messages about to be sent to more recipients than a predefined limit (whether due to RTA or not): clicking Send on such a message would pop up a dialog box displaying the recipient number and requesting confirmation. When I worked in Intel’s IT group I had actually developed such a tool, which was used across the company to good effect.
  • Make sent mass mailings impossible to RTA to: The NoReplyAll Outlook Add-In, from Microsoft Research, adds two buttons to the Outlook ribbon that allow the sender to prevent recipients from Forwarding or Replying to All the recipients of the message being composed.
  • Judiciously use BCC. If you do have a valid reason to send something to hundreds of people, please, please, use the BCC field for their addresses. This will guarantee the recipients can only reply to the sender…
  • Remove the Reply to All button from the interface. This has been done by the Nielsen Company, where it was removed in 2009 for all 35,000 employees. This led to much controversy online; I’ve discussed it in an earlier post. Personally I’ve seen it done in two Israeli companies, a client of mine in the Hi-tech sector and one in the Financial domain, both with satisfactory results.
  • Move the Reply to All button to the far end of the toolbar, away from its usual place next to Reply. This may seem silly but is actually very effective – the distance will eliminate accidental mis-clicks and the need to hunt for the new location should give one the second needed to put one’s brain in gear…
  • And a last piece of advice: I said above that in small team discussions Reply to All is fine, but even here it is best to educate people to follow the RTA click with a conscious act of paring the list whenever someone is no longer needed.

Your turn: what have I missed? Do you practice, or have you seen, any additional solutions you can share with the rest of us? Let us know in the comments!