A couple of computing-related human errors over the past few weeks had consequences ranging from the alarming-but-ultimately-innocuous to the downright wretched. In the case of the former, a human resource person at Aviva, one of the U.K.’s biggest insurers, mistakenly sent an e-mail to all 1300 of the company’s staffers working at its Aviva Investors business unit telling them that they were fired. According to the Daily Telegraph last week, the 1300 were told to “hand over company property and security passes on their way out of the building, and submit all electronic passwords.” The staff was additionally informed of their contractual obligations to keep company information confidential.
And of course, the e-mail thanked everyone for their service and wished everyone “all the best for the future.”
A few minutes later, the HR department sent another e-mail telling everyone—well, perhaps everyone but the one person the e-mail was really meant for—that it was all a huge mistake.
Getting fired by e-mail (or phone) seems to be an unfortunate trend that continues to grow. (You may recall former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz getting fired by phone last year and her blunt email reaction to it.)
On the wretched side of the "oops ledger," first reported two weeks ago, was a breach of protocol in the one situation where face-to-face communication is still supposed to be the only method for exchanging information.
The wife of a soldier based at Fort Carson, Colorado, learned via a post on her Facebook page that there was an emergency involving her husband, who was serving in Afghanistan, and that she should call his unit. She did, and was informed by soldiers in her husband's unit that he had been killed by an IED. According to military regulations and long-standing protocol, that information is only supposed to be delivered by specially trained casualty notification officers, who arrived at her door two hours later.
According to a news report, those soldiers in the husband's unit who were involved in contacting his widow are now facing reprimands. Military personnel are also being warned that such information is not to be communicated outside of the official chain of command. Given that deployed military personnel and their families communicate regularly via online tools such as social media sites, e-mail, and Skype, as this widow and her late husband did, it is surprising that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often.
Finally, there was another oops moment involving yet another big insurer last week. According to the Wall Street Journal, MetLife discovered last Wednesday it had inadvertently “posted historical data … on the investor-relations section of its website [that] ‘could be accessed in ways to make visible’ the preliminary quarterly financial results. It corrected the snafu on Thursday.”
The error forced MetLife, which is the largest life insurer in the United States, to report its quarterly results two weeks earlier than planned. The results, a loss of US $64 million—compared with a 2011 first quarter profit of $877 million—helped push MetLife’s stock, which has been climbing this year, down.
The WSJ reported that the glitch “stemmed from an effort by the insurer to get revamped historical data into investors' hands in advance of MetLife's previously planned 2 May earnings release date.”
Another classic case of no good deed (or unverified IT move) going unpunished.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.