It's never a good feeling to catch a co-worker bad-mouthing you. It can result in a lack of self-confidence and bring back not-so-pleasant memories of being teased by older siblings at home or bigger kids at grade school.
Being caught dishing out unkind remarks can be even worse. It's one thing to offer constructive criticism, as long as you are in a position where it's acceptable to do so. It's inexcusable, however, to belittle a co-worker simply for gossip's sake. Being caught bad-mouthing a co-worker in such a manner can show immaturity and maliciousness on your part and cause a strained relationship with the target of your remarks.
However, you can take some steps toward mending the relationship. Michelle and Dennis Reina, experts on trust and betrayal in workplace relationships, offer a seven-step approach:
1. Acknowledge what happened. Be sure to recognize the impact that your actions had on your co-worker.
2. Allow feelings to surface. Show that you are sensitive to the impact of your actions, and express remorse.
3. Get and give support. Offer to help in any way you can, and be an attentive listener.
4. Reframe the experience. Share what else was going on for you maybe you were stressed out about a project and allowed your anxiety to get the better of you but be sure not to be defensive.
5. Take responsibility. Own up to the deed.
6. Ask for forgiveness. Find out what you need to say or do for your co-worker to forgive you, but don't expect him or her to automatically do so.
7. Let go and move on. Promise not to repeat such hurtful acts and share your lessons learned.
Jeff Moller was forced to learn these lessons the hard way from a recent firsthand experience. Moller, a financial adviser for GE Energy in Houston, received an e-mail from a co-worker regarding ideas for an upcoming project. Moller thought the ideas were unintelligent and decided to forward the e-mail to other people around the office. The problem for Moller was that, after writing his mocking remarks, he accidentally clicked "reply" instead of "forward," and his negative comments were sent directly back to the co-worker whom he was mocking.
"It was not a good situation, but I made sure to e-mail my co-worker right back and apologize profusely," Moller said. "The next day at work, as awkward as it was, I approached him at his desk and made sure to extend a genuine, in-person apology."
Moller says that while his co-worker was still understandably angry about the situation, he appreciated the promptness and sincerity of Moller's apology and was willing to give Moller a second chance.
"One thing I obviously learned was to be careful before sending out an e-mail," Moller said. "But on a deeper level, I learned that it's foolish to put a relationship at risk just to get back a few laughs from others."
Nicholas Kinsports, a specialist in interactive advertising and digital strategy, echoed Moller's concern about being careful with what you write on your computer.
"It's difficult for some people to temper their social media activities when entering a new work environment," Kinsports said. "Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter allow you to learn about others in an increasingly open world, but accountability for your own content is often overlooked. It's best to sideline negative comments instead of going for the instant gratification of letting your Facebook friends know your new boss isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. Remember, you don't own the systems that store your content. What is private today may be public information tomorrow."
The lesson from all this is rather simple. If you are caught bad-mouthing a co-worker, you should apologize promptly and sincerely. It's best, however, to avoid being in that situation in the first place.
Danny Goldin is a writer for CareerBuilder.com. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow @CBForJobSeekers on Twitter.
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