How to handle those embarrassing moments at work

Make that apology short, simple, and to the point. Photo: Flickr

WASHINGTON, September 30, 2013 – Ever type an email using autocomplete?  You type the first letter of the first name of your email’s intended recipient, and then your email completes the word with the wrong name, something you never thought to check. You hit the “send” button, but later discover the information you typed in your email has been sent to the wrong person. 

Have you ever written disparagingly about an individual in an email but then accidentally “replied all” when you sent it – to a list of recipients that included the target of your negative comments?

Have you ever been in the restroom discussing another employee, only to discover that employee was currently occupying one of the stalls?

Ever make a presentation to a group of people unaware that your fly was completely open or your blouse was unbuttoned revealing a bit too much?

Ever use a wrong or inappropriate word in public when you actually meant to use a different word – a Freudian slip if you will?

Ever forget the name of an important client in that client’s presence?

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Ever forget to show up to a key meeting, or show up on the wrong date or at the wrong time?

Embarrassing moments like these are, unfortunately, a fact of life and ultimately happen to nearly all employees at work at one time or another. Different employees, however, react to making mistakes differently. In some cases, an employee recognizes that he or she made a mistake but does not over-react.  In other cases, an employee who makes an embarrassing mistake becomes very anxious and upset. 

Whether you’re the emotional type or not, the best action to take when any one of these situations occurs is to walk up to the offended party immediately and apologize. Short, simple, and to the point. A long, drawn out apology can make matters worse. These types of apologies usually sound defensive, insincere or false.  Short and simple is best.

A simple and genuine “I apologize if I offended you. I was completely wrong and inappropriate” is right on target. This apology accomplishes two key goals. First, the employee says right up front that he or she is truly sorry. This simple statement acknowledges that he or she was incorrect and is aware of the fact. In addition, it is unsolicited, demonstrating the employee has the courage to recognizes his or her own imperfections. 

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When embarrassing or inappropriate moments occur at work, an offended employee may take the incident to his or her manager for resolution or escalation. Given the complications that can quickly and unpredictably arise, it is always best to get out in front of such a situation and apologize to all concerned before that occurs.

A prompt and forthright apology may not stop a formal complaint or grievance from being filed. But it demonstrates your sincerity and your willingness to correct your mistakes. When confronted by management about an action you took that is deemed inappropriate, apologize again using the same strategy as discussed – simple and genuine. Do not make excuses. Tell the truth.

Inappropriate or inadvertent email transmissions have created an entirely new way to cause embarrassing situations to arise. A classic example of this is the case when an employee sends a potentially embarrassing email to the wrong recipient. Once that employee discovers the error, the best course of action for that employee is to pick up the telephone immediately and call the unintended recipient to discuss the situation. Ask the recipient if he or she is willing to destroy the email. Apologize directly and sincerely if the email was inappropriate. Apologizing through texts or emails is not effective in a case like this one or really anytime an apology is warranted.

These suggestions may not repair the damage in every case. In most situations, however, coworkers and supervisors recognize that all employees, including themselves, are human and do make mistakes. Even so, truly offensive remarks that can be categorized as discriminatory or unprofessional may not be forgiven.

But the best solution of all for this tricky issue is also the simplest: Just think before you act. Avoid getting into situations at work that you might later feel the need to apologize for, such as gossiping about other employees behind their backs.  

Fortunately, most embarrassing moments at work are truly unintentional, so employees can only try to prevent them to the best of their abilities. Others must learn to accept that human beings make mistakes.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Cassi Fields

Dr. Cassi Fields has provided expert opinion on career and workplace issues for nationally recognized media outlets including Forbes, TheStreet TV,, FOX News Live, US News & World Report,, WUSA9, News Channel 8,, and more. Dr. Fields, who received her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from George Washington University, lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.

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