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Embarrassing yourself in a social situation is the stuff of nightmares. The toilet paper stuck to your shoe, an open zipper during a speech or slipping on a patch of ice while walking down the street -- you don't forget the red face and cold sweats.
If you send gossipy emails at work, you may send to the wrong person by accident.
Embarrassing yourself at work is the stuff for therapy sessions. For some reason, workplace gaffes haunt us far longer than mistakes with our family and friends even though we've all experienced them.
When you find yourself in a cringe-worthy moment, you don't have many options. If you did something wrong, you can apologize. If it was beyond your control, you just grin and bear it.
Of course, in that moment, nothing you can do will allow you to shake the embarrassment.
Open mouth, insert foot
Perhaps the worst kind of embarrassment is the type you could prevent if only your brain were quicker than your tongue. When we say the wrong thing, we can't blame it on anyone else or plead ignorance. In these moments, we are our own worst enemy, a fact all too familiar to many workers.
Several years ago, Miriam Silverberg was a publicist and had a meeting with a client. While waiting in the lobby for the client to arrive, she struck up a conversation with the receptionist, who was wearing a flowing shirt.
"She told me she hated her job, she hated her bosses, she hated her co-workers, she hated everything about the place," Silverberg says.
"So I told her soothingly that I didn't think she'd be there much longer. She asked why and I said, 'Well, once the baby is born, won't you be taking maternity leave?' She said in a very injured tone, 'I'm not pregnant.'" Luckily, the client walked into the lobby at that moment and freed her from further embarrassment.
Attorney Anthony J. Colleluori's youthful ignorance gave him a red face and a lesson in doing a little research before making a comment. On the day he accepted his first professional job after graduating from law school, he spoke with the head of human resources. When he explained that first-year lawyers received four weeks of vacation, Colleluori informed him that two weeks would suffice. The HR representative explained that the vacation time was mandatory.
Colleluori told him, "'This is my first job as a lawyer and I need to work as much as I can. Besides I can't afford not to get paid for a month, even if I don't take it all at once. I am getting married next year.' That is when he informed me that the four weeks vacation was paid leave."
On occasion, when you do stop yourself from saying something stupid, your mind can't help but still think about what could have been. Just ask Susan B., who still remembers a near miss from several years ago when she was a library page.
"I forgot my shoes at home and had only my winter boots. My supervisor heard me complaining about my problem, and offered me a spare pair of her shoes -- ugly wooden clogs. What could I do?" she recalls. She wore the shoes so as not to appear ungrateful.
Later that afternoon, she was on a break chatting with a friend and lamenting the shoes. "[I said], 'Look at these shoes. Mrs. Strauss loaned them to me.' Just then I saw Mrs. Strauss poke her head through the staff room door and look at me, my feet extended, showing off her shoes. I'd been about to say how ugly they were, but instead said, 'Wasn't that nice of her?' I could feel the heat of embarrassment well up inside, and suspected she knew I'd made a nice recovery."
E-mail has made so much of daily life easier. In a brief moment, you can send a note to your friend overseas, look at pictures of your newborn niece and accidentally send a gossipy message to your entire department.
Eight years ago, Scott Stratten was talking to his wife about that day's performance review. He was a training manager and knew that his department often suffered most when budgets were slashed, so he warned her that he could be let go in a few hours.
During the review he not only didn't get fired, but he also received a raise. Excited, he sent her an e-mail saying, "Honey, I pulled the wool over their eyes again! I gotta teach a course in BS! Not only did the idiots not fire me, they gave me a raise! Here's to doing even less this year!" He then mindlessly selected his supervisor as the message recipient.
"I nearly threw-up," Stratten says. "I just sent this e-mail to the person I was mocking. I even did the 'I'll try and pinch the computer cable so the message won't get through' move, to no avail." He was then certain he was going to get fired, especially when he saw his boss coming toward him. "He poked his head into my cubicle, laughed and said, 'That was a good one, man!' and kept walking. I still get the sweats thinking about it."
Here are some other workplace gaffes that some workers would like stricken from the record:
• John Knox of Fredericton, New Brunswick, was looking at the sales receipt of a young customer when he asked his boss, "Wilbur? Really? Who names their kid Wilbur?" His boss then asked him if he'd received his paycheck earlier that morning. When Knox looked at the check, he noticed the boss' middle initial was W., which stood for Wilbur, of course.
• Anna Filipski of Chandler, Arizona, worked in a company that had two unisex, single-person restrooms. One day she walked in on a male colleague using the restroom. She screamed and ran down the hallway. He later apologized for not locking the door.
• When she was a receptionist for a law firm, Heather Hefner would spend her free time reading gossip blogs. She had just entered the URL for a site that took a while to load when a senior partner walked in and began chatting at her desk. He kept looking at her computer monitor, but she didn't want to draw attention to the gossip site, so she kept her focus on him. When he left, she turned back to the computer and saw a big picture of David Beckham wearing a white Speedo.
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