In what must be one of the more embarrassing email mistakes of all time, the Telegraph reports that this week Aviva accidentally dismissed an entire division of the organisation when it sent all of them an exit email which was intended for a single employee. The 1,300 employees at Aviva Investors were no doubt bemused when they received the email, which instructed them to hand over their company property and security passes on the way out of the building, reminded them that they had an obligation to adhere to the confidentiality clauses in their contracts once they had left, and wished them all the best for the future. I can only imagine that there were many sighs of relief when a second email was sent minutes later, apologising for the error.

Aside from a few red faces in the HR department, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be any serious consequences to Aviva’s faux pas. But would it be possible for an employee to claim for unfair dismissal on the basis of Aviva’s actions?

In order for a notice of termination of employment to be valid, it has to be clear and unambiguous. I’m not aware of the exact terms of the email that was sent although having regard to the way that it is reported in the Telegraph, despite the press reports to the contrary, I do not think that it could be read as a dismissal in law as such but rather it appears to have been an instruction on what to do next to someone who had already been notified of termination by some other method. 

It is though important to note that in circumstances where notice of termination is clear and unambiguous error by itself doesn’t necessarily mean that there would be no dismissal in law – in the case of CF Capital plc v Willoughby [2011] EWCA Civ 1115 it was held that an employer’s misunderstanding about an employee agreeing the terms of a new contract did not entitle them to later retract the notice of termination that they had issued to the employee. Accordingly, the employee was entitled to proceed with a claim for unfair dismissal.

The moral of the story is clear: always check the name in the ‘To:’ field before hitting send!