A verbal gaffe can be the funniest thing – until it tarnishes your good reputation or in the worst case scenario, costs you your job. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and California Republican Senate candidate, made an open-mic boo-boo when she dissed her opponent Senator Barbara Boxer’s hairstyle, saying “God, what is that hair?”. She later said she regretted the comment, although she didn’t apologise.

Twilight star Kristen Stewart also came under fire for a comment she made in a British women’s magazine. Of life in the limelight and being hounded by the paparazzi, she said: “The photos are so… I feel like I’m looking at someone being raped.” Later on she apologised for the mistake, saying that “violated” might have been a better choice of word.

These examples may highlight the trouble the rich and famous get themselves into on an average workday, but even normal folks like us aren’t safe from making communication slips – it’s a danger facing anyone who has to come into contact with people daily.

Take for instance, Jane Fong (not her real name). She was working in a media firm when her CEO sent out an internal memo about the company’s poor performance that financial year. She forwarded it to her husband with a snarky one-liner saying, “See what we put up with,” but accidentally sent it to the whole company. Five minutes later, with her tail between her legs, she sent another e-mail saying, “Oops, sorry.” But not before all her colleagues made jokes about how she would be the first to be retrenched.

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A mistake could have costly repercussions – even if you don’t get marching orders, boo-boos could still make you unpopular, or cause clients to doubt your professionalism.

“As a general rule, always watch what you say and how you say it, whether with colleagues or superiors,” advises a talent manager at a human resources company. “Also, observe the culture in your workplace, and adapt your behaviour if necessary to ensure harmony with everyone.” So if your colleagues are straitlaced, don’t even think about sharing the rude joke you heard over the weekend.

Here are more tips on how to save yourself if you ever find your foot lodged firmly in your mouth.

WORK FAUX PAS 1: You hit “reply all” and send a sarcastic comment to everyone in your company

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WHY IT’S BAD: “It’s definitely bad if you’re hitting out at someone, especially a boss, because it shows your lack of respect for people and the management.”

HOW TO MAKE AMENDS: “Try to do an e-mail recall, unless you are using Yahoo or Gmail which won’t allow you to do so. In this case, send a short note to everyone, apologising for shooting your mouth off without thinking properly.”

HOW TO MAKE SURE IT DOESN’T HAPPEN AGAIN: “Check your messages for any hint of negativity before you hit ‘send’. If it sounds angry or sharp, if you’ve used caps or made derogatory comments, then modify it. Or if you use Microsoft Outlook, you can set rules so that all your outgoing mail items will be delayed. This way, if you realise that you’ve sent the e-mail to the wrong recipient, or regret something you wrote, you can go to your outbox and edit the message.” – Associate consultant at an image consultancy company

WORK FAUX PAS 2: You say something insensitive to a colleague, which you later regret

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WHY IT’S BAD: “Probing too much into a colleague’s personal life, or making comments about religion or politics, may sabotage any chance of a good working relationship with him or her.”

HOW TO MAKE AMENDS: “Approach him or her and apologise, and offer to make it up by buying coffee or a quick lunch to show your sincerity.”

HOW TO MAKE SURE IT DOESN’T HAPPEN AGAIN: “Make sure you draw a line all the time – with people at work, you can’t just say what you think. You’ll know you’ve crossed a line when the other party appears to be uncomfortable or defensive.” – Talent manager at a human resources company

WORK FAUX PAS 3: You let slip a rude word at an important meeting

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WHY IT’S BAD: “It shows a lack of consideration for the people around you and you might end up losing their respect.”

HOW TO MAKE AMENDS: “Apologise immediately for your poor choice of words, but be sincere, and don’t smile while you are saying sorry!”

HOW TO MAKE SURE IT DOESN’T HAPPEN AGAIN: “Make a conscious effort not to use rude words in general. It’s do-able. I knew someone who constantly swore at meetings, but made it a point never to do so in front of women, and I never heard a single profanity from him.” – Associate consultant at an image consultancy company

WORK FAUX PAS 4: You post a rant on Facebook, which gets back to your boss

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WHY IT’S BAD: “Word spreads like wildfire on social media, and updates are made in real time, which could reflect badly on the corporation when people read them. It could cost you your job.”

HOW TO MAKE AMENDS: “Immediately take the post down, and tell your boss that it was inappropriate and done in a moment of lapsed logic. Assure him it won’t happen again. If your boss is the cause of your stress, schedule a meeting to talk through differences and find a solution.”

HOW TO MAKE SURE IT DOESN’T HAPPEN AGAIN: “Never put up on Facebook or Twitter anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable sticking up on a public bulletin board.” – Talent manager at a human resources company


This story was originally published in the November 2010 issue of Her World.

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