The Top 5 Most Horrifying Excel Errors: A Halloween Special

Microsoft Excel can be a wonderful data entry and manipulation tool. The spreadsheet software is beloved for its financial reporting, budgeting and data organizing capabilities. However, wrought with human error risk, a lack of transparency and collaboration capacities, Excel can also be horrifically evil; a veritable nightmare for the business world.

Excel was designed to enable the program’s users to seamlessly and efficiently enter and manipulate data. Yet, its results are difficult to amalgamate and analyze, and only limited traceability and data history access can be enabled. Moreover, these functions are grossly limited, take up copious amounts of time and place much inherent risk upon for businesses.

With Halloween just around the corner, here is a compilation of the creepiest, spookiest, most gut-wrenching Excel horror stories, as experienced in academia and by real-life businesses.


Harvard researchers mortified when students find error in publication

In April of 2013, three students of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote a paper entitled, “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth?” In their paper, the students criticized Harvard University economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, upon finding coding errors and missing data in their 2010 article, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” The errors, caused by the omission of spreadsheet cells during an Excel calculation and a lack of a peer review of the research, shamed the researchers and ran the risk of severely discrediting them, as well as the economic policies mentioned in their publication, since the errors biased in favor of the researchers’ result.


Leading British pharmaceutical company experiences drop in shares after accidental confidential information leak

AstraZeneca, Britain’s second largest pharmaceutical company, was horrified to discover that an Excel spreadsheet error during a “routine consensus collection process,” inadvertently led to confidential company finance information being embedded within the template of a mid-term financial forecast document released to financial analysts in 2012. The drug company hastily reiterated its report, but the damage was already done and the firm’s shares experienced a subsequent 0.4% drop.


Manual data entry error threatens to leave Olympic fans outside of the stadium

Imagine the horror. Tens of thousands of sports fans from across the globe travel to London, expecting to attend the 2012 Olympic Games, only to be turned away due to a manual data entry error caused by a staff member, who accidentally entered the wrong number of available stadium seats into an Excel spreadsheet. A single typing error had changed the correct figure of 10,000 remaining tickets for the 2012 synchronized swimming to 20,000 remaining seats. Luckily, the London 2012 Organizing Committee (Locog) noticed the error before the start of the Olympic Games and was able to contact the (furious and disappointed) ticket holders before they arrived on site and experienced the disappointment in person.


EU chief executive resigns over spreadsheet error

Chief executive of the EU-based international infrastructure engineering and environment business Mouchel, Richard Cuthbert, resigned in 2011 after an Excel spreadsheet error forced the company into making a major profits warning, claiming that the company was at risk of breaching bank agreements on debts. The error, actually accidentally caused by employees of an external actuary firm, had wrongly valued a pension fund deficit, leading Mouchel to write down annual profits by over 4 million GBP.


University acceptance process delayed due to aptitude test results mix-up

An error within the Excel spreadsheet containing the results of Oxford University’s History Aptitude Test for prospective history majors, led to a marked delay in the acceptance of applicants. Test markers had incorrectly transcribed candidates’ test scores into the spreadsheet, creating false test scores and adversely affecting the program’s entire application process.

As exhibited by the above horror stories, simple errors of input, formatting and calculation on a single Excel spreadsheet, can wreak havoc on a company, institution or individual’s ventures. These errors, committed without knowledge and without malice, dealt harsh blows to the affected establishments, leading to loss of employment, loss of funds and great damage to personal and professional reputations.

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