Workplace Faux Pas

How you can learn from your most embarrassing workplace gaffes.

By Meghan Casserly

When I started in the production department at Forbes, I was eager to get a happy hour tradition started with all of the 20-somethings in my group. So one Friday afternoon I sent a hasty e-mail to about 10 co-workers saying, "Our bosses have left the building! Let's meet by the elevators at quarter to five and get to the bar before it's crowded!" Unfortunately, one of the recipients of the e-mail was not the circulations assistant, but the chief financial officer of Forbes Media.

I was mortified--and fairly certain I'd be fired for conspiracy to leave early. Thankfully, our CFO has a sense of humor and I'm still gainfully employed at the company four years later.

"Everyone makes mistakes," says Barbara Pachter, author of New Rules At Work. "We know nobody's perfect and we shouldn't expect ourselves to be," she says. The pertinent issue here is that if you can get over your slip-up, the rest of your office will too.

I asked others to submit their biggest workplace blunders--names have been omitted to protect the embarrassed--and asked Pachter to advise them on how to get over, learn from and move beyond some of life's less professional moments. The author made a case that most workplace gaffes fall into three categories: embarrassments best ignored; awkward moments that open up the lines of communication; and slips that you can learn from to change your behavior.

"On my first day at a new job at a newspaper in Philadelphia I managed to lock myself in the bathroom," says a sports editor. "There was no one in there, and I banged on the door for a bit but no one came to my rescue. Luckily my boss had given me his phone number and I'd programmed it into my phone for emergencies."

He called his boss at his desk to let him out of the men's room. "Turns out the door wasn't locked, just a little tricky, and needless to say I was the laughingstock of the office for the next few months," he recalls.
Pachter says that in this situation it's best to joke along his co-workers: "If you show embarrassment, you can go under and drown in ridicule. But if you can joke along with your detractors, you prove yourself one of the guys."

Keep reading Workplace Faux Pas.

See the Eight Most Common Workplace Mistakes:

Caught With Your Pants Down
We've all been the perpetrator or subject of an unintended bathroom stall breach. If you've walked in, apologize and move on--this is not the time to stand red-faced with the door open. If you're the one caught in the act, say "excuse me" and shrug it off.

E-mail Mishaps
If your e-mail went out to the wrong list of people, quickly follow up with an apology. However, if your e-mail could cause tension or a scandal of any sort, take the time to talk through the situation with the wronged party. Don't make jokes--be apologetic and understanding of their feelings.

Split Seams

Whether it's the result of one too many burritos or an ill-fitting skirt, a wardrobe malfunction can be a particularly mortifying disaster. It's best to enlist a trusted friend to find a replacement piece while you stay at your desk. In the meantime, if there's a meeting you absolutely have to attend, snag someone's trench coat and tell everyone you're cold.

Keep reading the Eight Most Common Workplace Mistakes.

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