Whether you forgot a deadline, accidentally CC'd the CEO in a snarky email about the annual holiday party, or got caught insulting your boss on Facebook, embarrassing yourself at the office can feel like the end of the world.
But while your little (or big) mistake might feel like a major setback in terms of career growth, it could also be an opportunity to showcase some hidden strengths -- like humility, honesty, and accountability.
It’s all about how you handle yourself after the incident that matters -- and what you learn from it, moving forward.
At the very least, remember that your embarrassing office blunders will probably make for some hilarious stories … eventually.
How to Recover from 8 Office Blunders
1. Forgetting About a Meeting
We’ve all been there -- you’re sitting at your desk, happily eating a bagel and checking your email, when you realize you’re the only one from your team who is at her desk, happily eating a bagel …
We’ve all been there, right ... ?
The best thing to do when you forget or miss a meeting is to acknowledge it and apologize, ideally face-to-face. While it’s tempting to just send a casual “sorry about that!” email, it will seem more sincere if you seek out your manager and show you understand your mistake.
When you apologize, acknowledge your mistake, own up to it, and show you're committed to changing your behavior. For example, you could say something like, “This doesn’t reflect my usual work behavior. I’m sorry, I messed up. It won’t happen again.”
Avoid making excuses. Your manager doesn’t need to hear that your cat kept you up all night, or you hit traffic on your way to work -- just accept responsibility and promise it won’t become habit.
To prevent this from happening in the future, set up calendar notifications to remind yourself of upcoming meetings. When in doubt, double-check your calendar the night before.
2. Accidentally Hitting “Reply All” to an Email
On any given day, dozens and dozens of emails end up in your inbox -- from advertisers, friends, coworkers, and your boss. In the interest of productivity (and sanity), you probably find yourself skimming quickly, and maybe even replying hastily.
With so many messages flying in and out of your inbox, it's easy to accidentally hit “reply-all”. This can seem disastrous, especially when your message definitely should’ve been kept private -- like hitting “reply all” to a company invite for the next holiday mixer: “Do they really think this will be fun?”
The best thing to do is hold yourself accountable. While it might seem compelling to hide under your desk or say someone hacked your account, you should avoid making excuses for the slip up -- it will just draw more attention to a mistake you want everyone to forget.
Instead, “reply all” to everyone in the email thread, this time with a short and sweet, “Sorry about that, meant for someone else." If your original response was rude, seek out the affected parties offline and make amends -- don't continue to use the email thread.
To prevent this from happening in the future, double check your “to” field before sending an email whenever you’re in an email thread with more than one person. And remember that Gmail has a nifty "undo send" feature you can turn on.
Also, do your best to avoid sending anything unprofessional or rude via email to anyone, even your closest work friend -- that way, a message ends up going to the wrong person, it’s no big deal.
3. Insulting a Coworker or Boss -- While She’s Nearby
When you get closer to colleagues, the lines between professional and personal can blur. And while it might be (sometimes) okay to disclose Bumble-date horror stories on your lunch break, it’s never a good idea to start bad-mouthing a coworker or boss while you’re still in the office.
But none of us are perfect. You said something mean about your boss, and she heard you. Now what?
Unfortunately, the damage is done. But just like there are ways to apologize to a friend after a bad fight, there are ways to make amends with your boss.
First off, don’t try to explain yourself -- your boss doesn’t need to hear why you think she was rude in that meeting.
If possible, apologize in person, and fully own up to what you said: “I’m sorry for what you heard. I was letting some frustration out, but I shouldn’t have done that in the office. It was unprofessional. Next time I have a problem, I’ll come straight to you to work it out.”
This way, your boss understands that your words came from some heated emotions, and are not necessarily how you actually feel.
Next time you have a legitimate problem with a coworker or boss, approach them to discuss it directly. And if you really need to let your frustration out by talking to someone else, do it outside the office.
4. Missing an Important Deadline
It happens. Maybe you got swamped with a last-minute project, maybe your basement flooded, or maybe you simply believed you could finish by Tuesday, but now it’s Monday night and you’re panicking because you know you’re going to miss the deadline.
Here’s what you do: first, if at all possible, let any stakeholders know ahead of time that you’re going to miss the deadline. Hearing “Something came up, and I’m probably going to miss my deadline for Monday. Let's move to a backup plan,” is definitely less frustrating than hearing about it after the deadline has already passed.
When you can't deliver on time, it always helps to offer your stakeholders some alternative options. Make the case that getting an extension will enable you to produce a more complete product. Or, mention that in exchange for their flexibility, you're willing to add additional services, free-of-charge.
Whatever it is, people like options.
Most importantly, giving options shows the other person that you’re taking this missed deadline seriously -- so seriously that you’re willing to put in more of your own free time and effort to ensure they’re even happier with the result.
Of course, you don’t want this to become habit. In the future, perhaps you could start assigning yourself deadlines a day or two before they’re actually due -- allowing yourself some breathing room next time that basement floods.
5. Using Office Technology for Personal Reasons
When you’re sitting at your computer at work, particularly if no one else can see your screen, it can be tempting to cross off personal items from your to-do list … even when those items involve freshening up your resume, mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, or finally finishing Stranger Things season two.
Even if you feel like you’re not really wasting time, using the hours that someone else is paying you to accomplish these tasks is not only disrespectful, but it can also get you fired. You never know who is monitoring your activities.
The best way to avoid getting caught wasting time is to stop wasting time in the first place. Don’t use office technology for anything besides your job. When you’re at work, imagine that your CEO can always see your computer screen. If you’re really anxious about crossing things off your non-work to-do list, take a personal day, or do it on your lunch break.
6. Sharing Too Much on Social Media
These days, we share everything on social media. On Snapchat, we share our most disgusting post-gym-sweaty-walking-home faces, on Instagram, we share our favorite Saturday-night-party pictures, and on Facebook, we share everything from our political views to our favorite dog videos.
Sometimes, we share so much that we forget what should be off-limits. Our Snapchat ‘sweaty-at-the-gym’ pics might turn into ‘I-hate-my-boss’ pics, and those Facebook rants could become complaints about our colleagues.
Try to keep these lives separate. No matter how private you think your settings are, there still might be content accessible to people you know from work. You never know who someone knows, or when something will be screenshotted and shared. When it’s on social media, it’s out of your hands.
So take precautions: don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your coworkers or boss to see. If you’ve already posted something unprofessional, delete it.
Next time you have a funny story about a colleague or you’re frustrated about work, tell your friends over brunch instead -- it will be more satisfying to get their in-person feedback anyway.
7. Trying to Prove Yourself at Someone Else’s Expense
I recently took an SEO course. The teacher had been in the industry for 10 years, and he was currently freelance consulting. He had shown us three of his (well thought-out, well researched) slides, when a hand shot up from a girl in the back.
“Do you want to hear my feedback now on ways you can improve your SEO presentation, or do you want it at the end?” she said.
She wasn’t being rude or intentionally inconsiderate -- she was just trying to prove herself as an educated person in the group.
Luckily, he understood this. He smiled at her and then addressed the whole class: “Guys, in this course, I’d like you to focus on improving yourself, not proving yourself. You’re here to learn.”
He had a great point: many of us get so caught up in thinking of how to interrupt the meeting with our Legally-Blonde-courtroom moment that we forget that, in many instances, it’s more important to listen.
If you’ve insulted someone by giving feedback at the wrong place or time, apologize and humbly admit you should’ve listened to their opinion before offering yours.
In the future, keep in mind there are appropriate times to give your feedback: if your manager asks for feedback, if you’re brainstorming with your team, or if you’ve been with the company for a few months and have recognized some weaknesses in the system.
But don’t forget the importance of listening to your smart and insightful colleagues. Make sure you fully understand them before offering feedback -- you might find out that your advice has been considered already, or that it doesn’t fit, after all. If you’re dying to give feedback but aren’t sure how it’ll be received, run it by a coworker first to see if it’s productive.
8. Doing That Really Bad Thing That No One Else Did
You’re preparing for your first big marketing presentation by taking meticulous notes and rifling through your company’s CRM, when you press something.
You don’t know what you pressed, but now -- the database is gone. Gone. You’ve just deleted it.
The worst part is, when you point it out to your manager, he clicks around on your computer and after a moment says to himself, “Huh… I’ve never seen anyone do that before.” (In your mind, you translate this to: Huh… I’ve never seen anyone screw up like this before.)
The best way to recover is to be humble and honest. Point out how you innocently made the mistake, own up to it, and admit that there are still a lot of things you don’t know and need to learn. Don’t blame the system, the WiFi connection, or anyone else.
Hopefully, you’ll eventually be able to laugh about it, like, “Hey, you think you’ve got it bad? I once deleted the whole CRM database before my first marketing presentation. Whoops.”
Although there’s no way to foolproof yourself against these kinds of mistakes, you can prevent most of them by being patient with yourself when learning a new skill or software, asking for help whenever you’re confused … and reading the fine print carefully.
Originally published Feb 13, 2018 6:00:00 AM, updated February 13 2018