Three ways to prevent inadvertent e-mail replies to all

A free Outlook add-on generates an alert whenever you're about to reply to all the recipients of a message; alternatively, you can hide the Reply All button or delay all the messages you send. Gmail users can undo the send if they catch the mistake within 30 seconds.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

The dreaded Reply All button rang up another victim last week when a Los Angeles Police Department commander asked his officers in an e-mail to arrest someone for the illegal sale of underage bunnies so the department wouldn't receive a "black eye" in the media.

As Ana Garcia reports for NBC Southern California, the commander didn't realize his reply to an LAPD officer was also sent to the TV news producer who requested information on the lack of animal-cruelty arrests months after the department claimed to be cracking down on the practice.

Unlike many Reply All casualties, the commander received the support of his boss, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who said the commander was merely allocating resources.

No, this isn't a Looney Tunes cartoon starring Bugs Bunny as the intrepid reporter and Elmer Fudd as the beleaguered police commander. It just sounds like one.

Unfortunately, inadvertent replies to all are often nothing to laugh about. Last January, Ruth Graham reported on the Grindstone about a woman who lost her job after gloating about a disliked manager's firing in a reply she thought was going to only a handful of coworkers but that actually was sent to everyone at the company.

Has any single computer feature caused more grief than Reply All? Some organizations have gone so far as to disable both the reply-all and forward functions in their mail systems -- at least for select messages.

Microsoft Outlook users can avoid accidental replies to all by hiding the Reply All button (which is called Reply to All in Outlook 2003 and 2007). They can also set Outlook to delay the messages they send to give themselves a few seconds or minutes to catch their reply-all mistakes.

Perhaps the most effective defense against accidental blanket replies is to use the free TuneReplyAll add-on for Outlook 2010 that generates a warning you have to click through before replying to all recipients of a message.

Avoid accidental replies to all by removing the button from Outlook's toolbar or ribbon
The workday is often an unending series of distractions. With so many people, programs, and activities competing for our attention at work, it's no wonder we sometimes click the wrong button.

The simplest way to prevent inadvertent replies to all is to remove the Reply to All option from the standard toolbar in Outlook 2003 and 2007 and Reply All from the ribbon in Outlook 2010. Doing so in the former two programs is a breeze; the same can't be said for removing Reply All from the Outlook 2010 ribbon.

In Outlook 2003 and 2007, press the Alt key and drag the Reply to All button off the toolbar, or click the down arrow on the far right of the toolbar, choose Add or Remove Buttons, select Standard, and uncheck Reply to All. Note that you have to complete the steps in both the main Outlook window and Outlook's message window.

MS Outlook 2003 toolbar-customization options
Hide the Reply to All button in Outlook 2003 and 2007 by Alt-dragging the button off the toolbar or by using the "Customize toolbar" options. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

To customize the Outlook 2010 ribbon so the Reply All button is separated from the other reply options, follow the steps described by William Zhou on the Office TechCenter site:

Click File tab, choose Options, and select Customize Ribbon.
Choose Respond in the right pane and click Remove.
Click New Group twice. Rename the first New Group (Custom) as "Respond (Custom)" and the second as "Reply all (Custom)."
At the top of the left pane, click Main Tabs from "Choose commands from."
In the left pane, expand Home (Mail) and Respond.
In the right pane, select Respond (Custom).
Add the commands "Post reply," "Reply," "Forward," "Meeting," "IM," and "More" from left frame to Respond (Custom) in the right pane one by one.
In the right pane, choose "Reply all (Custom)."
Add the command Reply All to "Reply all (Custom)."
Select "Reply all (Custom)" and use the Down button to move it under "Send/Receive (IMAP/POP)."
Click OK.

You can alter the steps above to eliminate the Reply All button altogether by creating only one New Group named Respond (Custom) that lacks the Reply All option. In all three versions of Outlook, you can still reply to all by pressing Ctrl-Shift-R, or by clicking Actions > Reply to All in Outlook 2003 and 2007.

Last December, CNET's Rob Lightner described Microsoft's free NoReplyAll add-on for Outlook 2010 that lets the sender of a message disable the Reply to All and Forward functions for the message. As Rob explains, the program includes a feature that lets you disable reply all for all the messages you receive.

Unfortunately, the add-on works only for recipients on the same Exchange domain. Likewise, Outlook's retrieve-sent-message feature works only with Exchange accounts; the Outlook support site explains how message retrieval works in Outlook 2003.

Gmail gives you a better chance of canceling an inadvertent reply to all by using the service's Undo Send feature. To enable it, click the gear icon in the top-right corner of the main Gmail window, choose Settings, and under General tab, check Enable Undo Send. Click the Save Changes button at the bottom of the settings to enable the option.

(If you don't see the Undo Send option, click the Labs tab and enable it there.)

Gmail settings: Enable Undo Send
Gmail's Undo Send option gives you up to 30 seconds to cancel a sent message if you inadvertently replied to all or otherwise wish to retrieve the message. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Unfortunately, the maximum cancellation period is only 30 seconds (the other three options are 5, 10, and 20 seconds). In many cases, half a minute is long enough to realize you chose the wrong reply option and avoid having some 'splainin' to do.

Set Outlook to delay all the messages you send
You can add a message-delay feature to Outlook by creating a rule that automatically throttles e-mail sent to particular addresses or to all recipients. In April 2008 I described how to create a send-delay rule in Outlook 2003 and 2007.

The rule-creation process is the same in Outlook 2010, although the steps for opening the rules wizard are different: click File > Info > Manage Rules & Alerts to get the rule-making procedure going in that program.

Free program adds a 'reply to all' alert to Outlook
Much of the grief caused by accidental replies to all could be averted by an automatic "Do you really want to?" confirmation. Yes, I realize how aggravating it can be to have to click through such warnings when you're in a hurry to get to the end of your workday. When bombarded with pop-up alerts people often click through them without paying them any mind.

But this is your job security we're talking about here. If you decide the risk of your message reaching the wrong people is greater than your need for speedy dispatch, download and install IvaSoft's free TuneReplyAll add-on for Outlook 2010.

After you install the program on your PC, you have to enable it manually via Outlook 2010's Add-in Options. Click File > Options > Add-ins, and select TuneReplyAll in the list of add-ins. Choose the Add-in Options button. The program's options are shown under the TuneReplyAll tab.

TuneReplyAll settings
The options for the TuneReplyAll add-in for Outlook 2010 include the ability to exclude your address when replying to all and to generate a warning before replying to all. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

After the add-in is enabled, a warning appears when you choose Reply All asking whether you really want all the message's recipients to receive your response. The No button is selected by default, so pressing Enter cancels the reply-all action. You have to click the Yes button to confirm the reply to all (or press Tab and then Enter).

TuneReplyAll confirmation window
Before you can reply to all of a message's addressees, TuneReplyAll requires that you click through its warning. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

TuneReplyAll also lets you exclude your own address when replying to all. You can set the program to add your address automatically in the To:, Cc:, or Bcc: field of all outgoing messages. I tested the program on a standalone PC (not part of an Exchange domain) and it worked as advertised.

The other side of the reply-all equation is the ability to reply to all message recipients by default. Gmail Labs used to offer a Default Reply to All option that appears to have been removed -- at least the tool wasn't available in my Gmail account.

Companies seem to be moving in the opposite direction: toward disabling replies to all, as Mike Rosenwald reported last month on Businessweek.com.

According to employees at organizations that have disabled reply all in their e-mail systems, the feature is definitely not missed.