Making Your Words and Actions Count After Workplace Gaffes

How to rebuild your reputation and trust with coworkers

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Most of us have been there. From unwittingly mispronouncing someone’s name to accidentally sending a sensitive e-mail to the wrong person to calling a co-worker a derogatory name, office gaffes are common.

Most are momentarily embarrassing but not memorable, but some can cause resentment, ignite office discord, and prompt your employers to rethink your competence. If the offender doesn’t express regret and correct their actions, such embarrassing or reckless mistakes have the potential to ruin their career.

Every awkward situation is unique and should be handled differently, but you can’t go wrong if you remember to stay focused on the work at hand, says Kelly Morgan, owner of Sage Professional Strategies, a career coaching and human resources consulting company.

If a workplace faux pas has got your job on the line, follow these steps to revamp your reputation, displace peer mistrust, and get your career back on track.

Take feedback seriously. Ask for and be open to receive constructive advice on how to improve. If feedback comes in the form of a performance evaluation then go through each point to make sure you understand each area that needs improvement.

If you’ve made a huge blunder the biggest mistake you can make is to not take accountability for it, says Adrienne Graham, CEO of Hues Consulting & Management Inc., a recruiting company that also offers career strategy management.

Think back on meetings, events, and conversations over the phone or via e-mail, and ask yourself how others may have perceived what you communicated. Try to look at the situation from other people’s points of view.

“Disregard what your intentions were,” says Morgan, author of Journey to a Place Called There (Scribe Etc.; $16.95). “What matters is how the person [heard you]. It could be your body language, the words that you use or how [the words come out].”

Apologize. “Etiquette dictates that apologies are necessary no matter how small or big the mess up is,” says Graham. A public apology is not always necessary, but if your snafu affects a group in a project, then address the incident and let people know that this is not how you usually conduct business.

If you offended just one person, pull them to the side or give them a call later and apologize, but do not send an e-mail because they tend to be very impersonal and it is hard to detect tones and intent in an email, says Graham, author of Go Ahead Talk to Strangers: The Modern Girls Guide to Fearless Networking (Empower Me! Corporation; $19.99).

When you apologize, use “I” statements, says Morgan. These will shift the ownership back on you. Tell your employer or the offended party that you acknowledge what you did was wrong, how it affected your co-workers, clients, or employer, and what you will do to fix the problem or improve the situation.

Adjust your actions. “If there are no actions that come after [the apology] then you’ve dug your hole even deeper,” says Morgan. “Make intentional adjustments in your behavior, words, and tone of voice.”

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  • Arthur


    Great article! Alot of what we experience in the work place with “gaffes” is a lack of understanding and communication. Your cruise ship analogy is a great example of changing our thoughts and behaviors towards others and gaining a positive reputation.

  • Kimberly Y. Nwokedi, J.D.

    Very informative. I particulary enjoyed your last two quotes about giving yourself permission to fail and realizing that how you react….sets the tone in what difference it makes. Great advice.

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  • Very informative. I have been dealing with this for years at a small firm and at times had difficulty dealing with it to the point where I have started taking notes. The spirtual side of me told me to just pray for the individuals and not feed into it. The natural side makes me want to report the situation to human resources. This is my first time in my career that I have dealt with this most frequently in the small firm, compare to a larger firm that I was employed at for years. You would hope that people would just chill out based on your reactions to some of the comments but you have to compose yourself to handle the situation in a professional manner to cover yourself because we as people of color are quickly subjected to be labled in the work place.

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