Gaffe Training

Cringe-worthy blunders are a fact of office life, but you don’t have to suffer in humiliation. Here are some common workplace faux pas and tips on how to recover gracefully.

When Michael Banks* overhears a senior colleague say he must urgently get into the server and printer room, he sees an opportunity to impress. Since the room is locked and the key is missing, the young, ambitious employee offers to crawl through the ceiling from an adjacent area to open the door from the inside.

Banks gets the stepladder, climbs up and removes a tile — his black dress shoes quickly disappearing into the ceiling. Moments later, there’s a loud crash and thud. Someone manages to jimmy the server room door open, revealing Banks, flat on his back under a giant hole in the ceiling. He misjudged the width of the wall, stepped on a tile and fell right through, leaving dangling computer cables and a gaping void overhead. The once-overconfident Banks, now a deep shade of crimson, beelines for the door, leaving a thick cloud of dust behind him. “The upside is that he didn’t land on any equipment,” recalls Ryan Tremblay* who witnessed the regrettable event.

While it’s highly unlikely you have ever fallen through the office ceiling, odds are you’ve found yourself in an equally embarrassing predicament at work. Let’s face it — we all have. The office is where we spend most of our waking hours, says Jay Remer, a protocol and corporate etiquette consultant in St. Andrews, NB, so it stands to reason that you’ve said or done something humiliating at your nine-to-five. Unfortunately, such ignominious mistakes can come at a cost: some gaffes compromise your reputation, ruin relationships with colleagues or higher-ups and even hinder your chances of advancement.

In a study of more than 1,300 executives in Canada and the US conducted by staffing service OfficeTeam, nearly everyone interviewed could cite an embarrassing workplace scenario. The most commonly reported oops moments had to do with wardrobe malfunctions (“My skirt got caught in my panty-hose”), run-ins with bosses (“I called my boss by the wrong name during a meeting”) and office equipment (“I stapled one of my fingers while I was assisting an employee”).

Many of us end up in such messes because of the rushed culture of today’s workplace, says Sari Friedman, a human resources consultant and career coach in Toronto. “A lot of this is because we are all so busy — rushing here and there, doing too many things at once, not taking the time to put our devices down or think before we speak,” she says.

Our comfort level with colleagues can also be to blame, says Vancouver-based etiquette consultant Nina Durante. “Even though we are relaxed, there is a level of behaviour that we have to be mindful of at all times. Many of our blunders could be avoided if we simply thought about how our behaviour will affect those around us,” she says.

Compassion plays a role, too, especially if your subordinate flubs up, or if you are the victim of humiliation. “Recognizing that humans make mistakes and are flawed is imperative. We don’t need to be chastised every time we make a mistake — humans aren’t perfect,” says Remer. That said, there are steps you can take to avoid saying or doing something you’ll regret later. The experts agree that being fully engaged and thinking before you act is key to dodging uncomfortable circumstances.

While some missteps are easily mended with a “whoops” and a shared chuckle (read: the speck of spinach stuck in your teeth that your cubicle mate points out), others require more finesse to retain the respect of your colleagues and managers. The techniques in the scenarios that follow will help you overcome the indignities you face as swiftly and gracefully as possible.

The gaffe: You’re in a meeting and your boss asks you to provide figures to the group. You carelessly mention confidential information, and judging by people’s reactions, they know you’ve really goofed.

The fix: “This is not good for one’s career, as people won’t easily forget your poor judgment and lack of discretion,” says Friedman. Fess up, admitting you shouldn’t have shared that information. “Ask that everyone do a better job than you have at keeping what they heard confidential.” After the meeting, see your boss in person to say how much you regret your transgression and promise to put a great deal of thought into what you say in the future. If you have a training allowance, you could request to take a course in business communication, suggests Friedman.

The gaffe: You’re out having lunch with a colleague when one of your clients spots you and heads over to your table. You recognize him but can’t recall his name, which will make it incredibly difficult to politely introduce him.

The fix: There are a few ways you can handle this all-too-common nerve-racking situation. First, say your hellos and ask, “Have you two met?” Odds are, says Toronto etiquette expert Louise Fox, “the client and your colleague will follow up by introducing themselves.” Or you can introduce your colleague, at which time he’ll extend his hand, prompting the client to do the same and introduce himself. Worst-case scenario: own up and admit that his name has slipped your mind. Julie Blais Comeau, author and chief etiquette officer at in Ottawa, says you can try saying, “I’m so sorry — it’s so nice to see you again; we just saw each other at that networking event last month. Please freshen my memory — it seems I’m experiencing brain freeze.”

The gaffe: You’re in the boardroom with colleagues and management waiting for a meeting to start when you unexpectedly spill your mug of hot coffee all over the table and onto a colleague’s lap.

Spilling hot coffee onto a colleague's lapThe fix: Take responsibility and apologize profusely. Stand, ask your colleague if she needs medical attention (she might have been burned), then fetch her several paper towels or napkins. “Do not touch the person or her things,” warns Blais Comeau. “This is a big rule.” You should offer to wipe down the table in front of her, but don’t handle her laptop, smartphone or even her day timer without asking permission. (And most certainly don’t reach down to help her clean her skirt.) When you’ve done as much tidying as possible, say you’re sincerely sorry again and offer to cover her dry-cleaning costs. “If she refuses, make a follow-up call, reiterate your apology and insist you pay for dry-cleaning,” says Fox.

If the tables are turned and you’re the one who gets splashed, don’t cry over spilled coffee. Blais Comeau says it behooves you to say something along these lines: “It was a mistake; these things happen. That’s why we call them accidents,” before leaving the room to freshen up.

The gaffe: You think you’re sending an email to your chum across the hall, but it goes out to all staff by mistake. Even worse: the note contains unflattering details about a coworker.

The fix: “I like the saying, ‘Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition,’” says Durante. It’s good advice, since a US survey conducted by staffing firm The Creative Group found that 78% of executives admitted to mistakenly emailing someone the wrong message or copying someone on a message without intending to. Two of the worst email mishaps that respondents divulged: “Someone sent out confidential salary information to the whole firm,” and “We sent an email to a client that was meant for a vendor. It made it difficult when the client had seen our costs.”

This is, obviously, something you should be trying to prevent by carefully reviewing emails, including the “to” field (which should be the last thing you type in), before pressing send. “But if it does happen, the best thing to do is to send a follow-up email apologizing for your unprofessional behaviour,” Friedman says. Go to the person you gossiped about, express regret and sincerely apologize face to face. “Then be proactive and go speak with your boss, ensuring him or her that this will never happen again,” says Durante. Adds Friedman: “This example is actually really bad for your career prospects. Employers do not have a high regard for this type of behaviour as it’s mean, insensitive and sloppy.”

The gaffe: You’re at your desk killing time online (hello, Facebook) and click on a link that, unbeknownst to you, opens an adult-only page that’s graphic in nature — complete with sound. You scramble to close the page but the noise causes folks around you to peer over.

Man scrambling to close online adult-only page that's graphic in natureThe fix: This happened to Friedman years ago when she was in a junior human resources role. “I was helping plan the company picnic and searched for ‘adult games.’ Oops! My screen filled with all sorts of inappropriate popups and images. It was very embarrassing. I realized it was best to search for ‘picnic games for all ages’ instead.” If this happens to you, try a quick quip such as, “I guess I need to think more clearly about wording when I’m searching the Internet.” And take this as a sign: it’s best to do your online browsing at home from now on.

The gaffe: You’re giving an important presentation to your boss (and your boss’s boss) and a dozen colleagues. The zipper on your pants has been down the entire time and you don’t realize until just before the end of your talk.

The fix: Ah, the wardrobe malfunction — a workplace classic. (If it can happen to the likes of Janet Jackson and Lenny Kravitz, it can happen to you.) In this scenario, zip up, ASAP. If a colleague announces your fly is down in front of your team, “try to make light of it. It’s OK to be a bit visibly embarrassed, but then return to the presentation,” says Friedman. In the more likely event that folks remain mum, Durante advises leaving it alone. “Some may not have noticed and there’s no point in drawing everyone’s attention to it.”  

If you’re witness to a coworker’s garment glitch (this includes the oh-so-common toilet paper stuck to the bottom of shoes), discreetly mention it to him or her. “And let it end at that. Don’t go around after saying, ‘Hey — did you see so-and-so’s fly was down?”

The gaffe: You bump into an acquaintance on another floor whom you haven’t seen in some time and congratulate her on her pregnancy. It turns out she’s not pregnant, which she tells you rather defensively.

The fix: These kinds of mistakes are often made as a result of gossiping — perhaps you heard someone yakking about Karen’s fictional pregnancy, and upon seeing Karen, you don’t think twice before reciting incorrect blather. “It’s best not to get on the gossip train or repeat any of these speculations. Make it your personal policy not to engage in office gossip,” Fox says. In this case, “recognize that you’ve probably really embarrassed and hurt her. Say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Karen. I’m mistaken; the good news must be about someone else.’” Then promptly change the subject.

Not only should you disengage from rumour-mongering, Blais Comeau says complimenting folks in business is a no-no. If you want to say something about how a colleague looks, stick with a neutral observation such as, “I love that suit — it’s such a great colour.”

If a colleague makes a questionable comment about your appearance — someone congratulates you on your bun in the oven when you’re not pregnant — simply say, “Actually, I’m not expecting,” Blais Comeau says. “You could also pretend you didn’t hear it and move on to something else.”

The gaffe: You’re chatting about a client with your boss in his office. Before you leave you turn and say, “OK, thanks, honey; love you,” as if you were talking to your spouse.

The fix: This wee slip of the tongue isn’t the end of the world and frankly, it’s easily remedied, says Blais Comeau. “Make a joke. Say, ‘I guess I’m running on too little sleep — I’m so sorry. It just popped out. Whoops!’” The key here is not to let what you’ve inadvertently said linger. “Realize it right away, acknowledge it and move on.”

*Names have been changed to protect the embarrassed