How to Handle Social Gaffes at Work

A manager covering her face after making an embarrassing social gaffe at work.

We’ve all been there: You complain about a coworker without realizing they’re within ear shot until it is too late. You send an email disparaging a vendor to your boss, only to hit “reply all” and permanently torpedo your relationship and your negotiating position.

Workplace social gaffes happen to everyone, and even the smallest faux pas can have lasting negative effects on a professional relationship. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to avoid them when possible, addressing and recovering from them when they do occur.

Common Workplace Social Gaffes

Let’s say you failed to hold the elevator open for a coworker because you genuinely did not see them, or because you accidentally hit the “close doors” rather than the “open doors” button. Even this fairly innocent and unintended social snub can color future interactions with that colleague.

We never know another person’s story. What may seem like a minor, if awkward, incident to some might be extremely hurtful to others. In addition, people have varying tolerance for profanity and other forms of possibly offensive language and humor.

Other common workplace social gaffes include:

  • Forgetting to offer someone a seat when they come to your office
  • Failing to hold the door open for someone behind you
  • Asking when a woman’s baby is due, only to learn that she isn’t pregnant
  • Complimenting someone on losing weight only to learn they’ve been seriously ill
  • Calling a coworker by the wrong name
  • Sending an email, text, or Slack message to the wrong person
  • Leaving your resume open on your desktop or otherwise making it clear that you are looking for another job
  • Complaining about your boss or coworker only to realize they are standing right next to you

Avoiding Social Gaffes in Today’s Workplace

Today’s workplace is less formal than ever, but it’s important to keep in mind that work is not a social setting. The best way to avoid committing a faux pas is to conduct yourself in a highly professional way, focusing on the work at hand, at all times. The more we do this, the less likely it is that we’ll say or do something cringeworthy.

The following guidelines can help you avoid everyday workplace gaffes:

  • If your office has an open floor plan, don’t assume a thin partition means your coworkers can’t overhear your phone conversations.
  • Don’t say anything to a coworker that you wouldn’t say in front of your boss.
  • Be thoughtful. If you don’t know how someone may react to a situation, ask. For example, you wouldn’t want to invite a client to a business dinner at a steak restaurant only to learn as you sit down that they are vegan.
  • Avoid discussing hot-button issues that people have passionate and wide-ranging views on, such as religion, politics, or money.
  • Don’t gossip or disparage anyone, since personal criticism usually makes you look worse than the person you are criticizing.
  • Don’t talk about sex, dating, or your romantic relationships, as this can be highly uncomfortable or offensive to others and even lead to claims of harassment.
  • Refrain from complimenting people’s appearance or clothing, as this can also be experienced as unwanted attention.
  • Don’t ask or refer to anyone’s age.

Avoiding Social Gaffes as Part of Global Teams

If you work as part of a global team with counterparts around the world, it’s especially important to make an effort to learn the correct pronunciation of the names of everyone you interact with on a regular basis. If you mispronounce someone’s name, apologize and then ask them to help you correct the error, taking note of a phonetic pronunciation if necessary.

Be aware that social distancing norms differ by culture and for neurodiverse individuals, as do acceptable greetings, such as shaking hands.

If you are the leader of a global team, don’t make assumptions about scheduling or holidays that might betray cultural insensitivity. Instead, ask all team members about holidays at the start of the year.

Negotiating Workplace Friendships and Socializing

Workplace friendships can become important lifelong attachments and serve as important sources of engagement for employees, improving productivity and increasing retention. When you form a close work friendship, it can be tempting to engage in highly personal conversations and venting sessions.

But, as important as emotional support and allyship can be—especially when you are faced with stressful work situations—it’s best to save conversations that might offend others or cause you unintended embarrassment for offsite lunches or the end of the workday.

Finally, if you’re invited to a work event where alcohol is being served, consider refraining. If you do decide to imbibe, drink in moderation. Whether it’s the company picnic or a client dinner, aim to be warm and friendly, but there is no need to be the life of the party.

How to Recover From a Social Gaffe

Even with all the best intentions, it’s likely that you’re still going to commit the occasional social gaffe at some point in your career. When it happens, look on it as an opportunity to learn more about your coworkers and yourself.

You can recover from a workplace gaffe, or guide one of your direct reports to do so, by doing the following:

  • Focus on the feelings of the person who has been offended.
  • Don’t try to pretend the mistake never occurred.
  • Apologize face to face as soon as you feel up to it.
  • Offer to make amends by asking “How can I make this right?”
  • Explain how you made the mistake (though not to get yourself off the hook) and how you will endeavor not to make the same mistake again.
  • Try not to obsess too much over how embarrassed you are, as this focuses on you rather than how the person you have offended feels.
  • Don’t say things like, “I’m usually so empathetic,” “I never do this sort of thing,” or “I’m the last person who would intentionally offend someone”—now is not the time to brag about what a great person you are.
  • Avoid falling into a shame spiral, as this might cause you to avoid the person or even retreat from your team.
  • Work to restore the relationship, knowing that this may take some time.
  • Look at your social gaffe as a learning opportunity, a chance to learn more about yourself and someone else’s culture or situation. However, be careful not to place the burden of education on members of traditionally oppressed groups.

If you handle the situation correctly, you’ll be able to salvage your image as a thoughtful and professional coworker.

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