CareerBuilder Menu Search Search

How to bounce back from an embarrassing work blunder

Robert Half International

  • Email

Have you ever called a colleague by the wrong name, tripped in the hallway or spilled coffee on your suit?

You can take solace in the fact that you're not alone.

We asked more than 1,300 senior managers to describe their most embarrassing moments on the job. Survey responses ran the gamut from funny faux pas to mortifying mishaps.

For example:


  • "I conducted a training session with my zipper down."

  • "While interviewing a job candidate, I fell asleep."

  • "I said something inappropriate about my boss and found out he was standing right behind me."

  • "I answered the phone using the wrong company name."

  • "I sent an offer letter to the wrong candidate."

  • "I called my boss 'my love' by complete accident."


As the anecdotes above prove, nobody is immune to the occasional office gaffe. The key is to understand how to rebound from blunders with poise and professionalism.

Here are some tips:

Stay calm, cool and collected

It's easy to become frazzled after realizing you've made a mistake. Instead of allowing your mind to run wild with worst-case, "what if" scenarios, take a moment to collect yourself. When your nerves are rattled, the first response that pops into your head may not be the most effective or appropriate. So, take a few deep breaths, maintain your composure and carefully think through your next step.

Face the music

Own up to your "oops" moments. For instance, let's say you're listening to some colleagues gripe about Jen from marketing, who unexpectedly walks by at the very second you weigh in with a critical comment of your own.

While you might be tempted to run from the building or hide in the bathroom until the workday ends, it's better to face the music and make amends. Pretending it didn't happen or avoiding the offended individual only amps up the awkwardness. You're eventually going to have to deal with the hurt feelings you've caused; it's smarter to do so sooner than later.

Say 'I'm sorry' with sincerity

The greatest form of damage control is an authentic apology. Taking responsibility and showing remorse and concern for those you've inconvenienced or insulted diffuses tension.

On the other hand, you'll dig yourself in deeper by making excuses, becoming defensive or playing the blame game. The same goes for feigning regret. When people are upset, they want to know you understand the seriousness of the slip-up and will take steps to ensure it won't happen again. Half-heartedly saying, "I'm sorry, but it's really not that big of a deal" or accusing the person of being oversensitive is guaranteed to generate additional ill will.

Use humor to your advantage

Many cringe-worthy goofs affect just one person: you. If you spill iced tea all over yourself during a meeting or send a silly but harmless e-mail to the wrong co-worker, have a sense of humor about the situation. Letting them know the joke is on you shows you don't take yourself too seriously.

In addition, being able to chuckle at yourself puts others at ease and gives them permission to enjoy an innocent laugh. Lightheartedness and a little vulnerability will make you more approachable to those you work with, too.

Move on

As author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau advised: "One cannot too soon forget his errors and misdemeanors; for to dwell upon them is to add to the offense." The point is that brooding over a misstep and over-apologizing doesn't help you or anyone else. In fact, letting yourself get distracted by something you can't change actually increases the chances you'll make another error.

Learn from your mistakes, rectify them to the best of your ability and then let them go. In most cases, the faster you regain your focus and get back on track, the less memorable the incident will be.

Robert Half International is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 350 offices worldwide. For more information about our professional services, please visit www.roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roberthalf.



Last Updated: 08/03/2011 - 4:32 PM


Article Reprints
Permission must be obtained from CareerBuilder.com to reprint any of its articles. Please send a request to reprints@careerbuilder.com.