IT Employment

10 office gaffes to avoid

Have you ever wanted to disappear after committing some stupid faux pas? If it occurs in a professional context, it could be more than embarrassing -- it could cost you business or hurt your career. Calvin Sun looks at some preventable gaffes.

Gaffe: "1: a social or diplomatic blunder   2: a noticeable mistake"

You want visibility in your career. However, that visibility should be the positive kind. The last thing your career needs is a gaffe -- that is, a blunder that puts you in the negative spotlight. Here are a few areas to beware of.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Misspelling a name

A person's name, to paraphrase Dale Carnegie, is one of that person's most important possessions -- so be sure to spell it right. Nothing indicates a lack of professionalism more than misspelling a person's name. When in doubt, ask. People won't find your question annoying. In fact, they'll be honored that you thought the spelling was important enough to check directly.

A misspelling need not involve only a personal name, either. It might be a key term used in your organization, profession, or industry. A bar examination review handout I saw recently discussed the "parol evidence rule," a concept important in contract law. The handout specifically cautioned readers to spell the word correctly in their essays as "parol" and not as "parole." Guess what? A different handout from that same company explored the topic in more detail and was titled "The Parole Evidence Rule."

2: Mispronouncing a name

The same logic regarding spelling applies to pronunciation. As before, simply ask the person directly. If you have to, make up a phonetic representation of the name and practice it with the person. Again, people won't mind your taking up their time this way; they'll be flattered that you care about saying their name correctly.

3: Commenting on a personal/family photo

I once met two women, thought they were mother and daughter, but managed to keep my mouth shut. They actually were sisters.

That interaction occurred face to face. The mistake I avoided, however, can occur with photographs as well. If you see a personal or family photo on someone's desk, avoid commenting or speculating on relationships. That young boy that you think is a grandson just could be a son. Similarly, if you know the photo is an earlier one of the person you're meeting with, avoid comments such as "You looked really great back then."

4: Asking about pregnancy

No matter how much the woman looks like she's showing, keep your mouth shut until and unless she brings the subject up. If you ask, and the answer is "no," you have no graceful way to retreat. If you're conducting a job interview, you've also opened yourself up to a discrimination lawsuit.

5: Asking about unseen/absent spouse

Suppose last year, at the holiday party, you saw both your co-worker and your co-worker's spouse. This year, only the co-worker, not the spouse, attended. As with the pregnancy situation, keep your mouth shut. Don't be in the position I've been in twice: asking about the spouse only to be told, "We're divorced."

6: Referring improperly to your boss

The same errors in determining family relationships can apply to office relationships. If you're planning to be away and want to refer callers to your boss, that's fine. However, make sure that your boss is okay with these referrals. More important, make sure your voicemail greeting or e-mail autoreply makes the relationship clear. Don't just say, "If you have questions, please contact Frank Smith at (phone number/e-mail address)." Say instead, "...please contact my manager, Frank Smith..."

7: Failing to reset a voicemail greeting or e-mail autoreply

When you return from time away from work, undo any temporary absence greetings or autoreplies you've set. Nothing makes you look stupider than having a greeting that references a date of return from three months ago. If you think you're going to forget, try placing a Post-It note on your telephone handset or your computer screen.

8: Leaving a departed employee in voicemail / on the Web

Once an employee leaves your company, remove that person from voicemail and from any online directories you might have. Leaving the person in place makes the company look foolish. In addition, you might create a situation where an unaware caller still leaves a message, and that message might later be lost.

It's even worse if the employee has, shall we say, permanently departed. I have seen and heard, weeks afterward, voicemail greetings from deceased employees and references to them on Web pages.

9:  Correcting the boss

Correcting your boss will hardly endear you to that person. If he or she made a mistake, try to correct it in as low-profile a way as possible. Perhaps you can talk to your boss during a break? However, you may (and should) publicly correct the boss when the boss is wrong about being wrong. In that limited circumstance, public correction is okay.

10: Displaying disunity in public

If you have disagreements with another person or department, resolve them privately. Don't air dirty laundry to outsiders. Doing so makes your whole organization look bad. Don't be like an executive I called after being referred to him by his boss's assistant. That executive told me (actually, "yelled at me" is more appropriate) that the assistant shouldn't have done that and that she would be in big trouble for doing so. By the way, that executive is no longer with that company.


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About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

40 comments
Matthew G. Davidson
Matthew G. Davidson

I will normally leave my out of office message active for a few days after I return from my time off. This tells people who are calling during those few days that I might be overloaded with work and might not be able to get back to them right away.

deanwhitehead
deanwhitehead

I work in healthcare with many doctors. Some can be especially touchy about their title. Although on a first name basis with most, I usually refer to them a "Dr. Hancock (e.g.) instead of "John." Same goes for C-suite execs. Sure, others might play the power game of "we're on a first name basis", but setting an example for new or younger employees is more important to me.

a.portman
a.portman

Get the title right. Some people don't care if you remember they are Dr. Smith or not. SOME DO!!!! Much better to hear "You don't have to call me doctor" than "ITS DR. SMITH!" "If you don't see the babies head, don't ask if she is pregnant." My bio is still on the web page of the company I left in 2007. What can I say, the new web master doesn't have my skills. I would have zapped him the day after he left.

OurITLady
OurITLady

Don't assume that because someone is a "certain age" they are automatically married. One of my personal irritants is people who ask for Mrs..... because the information they have indicates I'm over 40 which means I must obviously be married. I have no problem with Miss or Ms or even missing the title completely but when when someone asks to speak to Mrs I'll almost always tell them there's no-one there of that name.

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

If parents weren't playing the game of making their kids name so special, so they're "an individual", and will stand out, we could pronounce their names. Here's an example for you non-baseball types: Chone Figgins. EMD

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

I once worked with a manager that left her away notification on for six months, intentionally. The problem was that she was invited to 9 or 10 hours of meetings every day and couldn't get any work done. Her solution was elegant.

ElijahKam
ElijahKam

This one is so obvious that it probably does not need to be included in the list. Do not make reference to a person's race, religion, ethnic background or sexual preference unless the person brings it up, and even the be very careful.

thezar
thezar

I understand forgetting about a dated answer, but after I tell the person about it and it's still there next time.... Write-off Time!

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

For instance, if you can't tell a boss that he is a bone head and that the sky is not green, do you really want to work with this idiot until you get a gold watch?

rbogar
rbogar

To borrow from Dave Barry: NEVER assume that a woman is pregnant unless you are actually seeing a baby come out her at that moment.

GSG
GSG

Spelling my name correctly is a huge pet peeve. I'd worked with someone for 8 years, and she still couldn't spell my name correctly. I told her that it was spelled with an "e" not an "i", and her response was, "You spell it wrong because spell check changes it to an i." I informed her that I was born long before Microsoft was a glimmer in Bill Gates' eyes, so Microsoft's spell check was wrong. She continued to spell it wrong, so I started replying to all of her emails with my signature with a capital "E", bolded, and in font twice as big. When that didnt't work, I started spelling her name as "Janit" instead of "Janet", and always changed all e's to an i and all i's to an e in all the words in any emails. She got huffy and told me that her name was NOT spelled with an i and to please get it right. I told her that mine wasn't spelled with an i either, and that when she got my name right, I'd get hers right. By this time, it ended up being a huge joke. She was widely known as being less than intelligent and quit soon after.

cupcake
cupcake

I have a hyphenated last name. Have had for a long time. You cannot believe the number of clever ways I have seen my name mangled. Especially when someone attempts to formalize the name: Mrs Name1? Ms. Name2? I am most impressed if someone checks with me about the proper way to say my name. I am especially revengeful when someone decides to just drop one name or the other.

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

I've found that the VM of a departed (the firm, not the Earth...even my tactlessness goes so far) employee is a great place to which you can refer unsolicited sales/marketing calls. "We'd like to update our information on your firm in our records" "Hi, I'm sitting here with John, a veritable Swiss-Army knife of programming skills. He just came off...." "Are you interested in our latest technology; WowTheSocksOff v2?" Um, yeah, you need to speak with Ed Munster, over at extension 1313, let me transfer you over there now.

kjohnson
kjohnson

A good way to get on my nerves is not replying to messages. If I leave a message, phone me back when you can.

a.southern
a.southern

As Jimmy Carr said: "I never offer my seat to a pregnant woman on the bus, I'd rather see a pregnant woman suffer than a fat woman cry...."

phillytechwriter
phillytechwriter

I think it's a little rude when you tell someone what your name is for the first time and they immediately decide to give you a nickname. Maybe Natalie doesn't want to be called "Nat" or Patricia doesn't want to be called "Trisha." Just because you might be too lazy to pronounce the entire name doesn't mean it's ok to just start making up your own..

KSoniat
KSoniat

I named my daughter "Kinsey" before the McKenzie craze started. People will frequently call her McKenzie thinking we are using a nickname. The first time she will politely correct you and explain it is K-I-N-S-E-Y not "Kenzie" but if you persist she will call you McJames or McDonna or McAllie. People pay attention when it is THEIR name that is being mangled. ]:)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

You know it's bad when your manager orders you a new corporate name tag and can't spell your name right five consecutive times. Doesn't give you much confidence in his other abilities...

Maevinn
Maevinn

Co-workers who repeatedly spell my name wrong drop on my priority list for any response. I make darn certain I verify names before sending anything off, and I ask confirmation before using a name outloud. I was once at an AF promotion ceremony where the promotee's first name was Jesus. The officer reading the commencement didn't care enough to pronounce it correctly and even made some stupid comment about 'that's how we say it in Kentucky'. I don't think he was an officer much longer.

KSoniat
KSoniat

I'm with you cupcake. I have an unusual spelling of my first name and my last name is not hyphenated, but it is three separate words separated by spaces. This tends to make me pay closer attention. when I meet a "Susan" I'll ask whether she prefers "Susan" or "Sue" and I work with a one-B "Debie"

thezar
thezar

The best line I've heard is, "Never mention a woman's 'pregnancy' unless you are watching her give birth".

daarka
daarka

I once had a boss that called everyone 'Bub'. We all knew it was because he could not remember our names. One of my co-workers at the time was doing an impromptu skit of the boss calling everyone else 'Bub'. It was funny because it was true. Unfortunately he had his back to the door when the boss walked by and saw the skit. From then on, the boss knew one name for sure. Luckily he had a sense of humor and took it in stride, but he never forgot the name of the comedian.

psingleton
psingleton

If you are a guy and the lady is standing...get your a$$ up and let her sit, not because of pregnancy or anything other than the fact that you should be polite.

KSoniat
KSoniat

We liked the name Gabrielle - maybe would go for "Brie" for short. But knew "Gabby" was most likely and discarded it. My husband is "James" and when telemarketers call for "Jim" I know something is up.

cupcake
cupcake

I did that with my hyphenated name, when people would drop the first half of the name and call me "Ms. Smith" (instead of Jones-Smith), I would drop half of their names. This worked particularly well with my son's elementary principal, Mr. Montenegro... it would really get everyone's attention when I would call him "Mr. Negro"! (BTW, he was Hispanic not black, and it was pronounced 'Mon tay nee egg row'and I was say it 'Mr. Nee-egg-row'... And with names, my son's name is Streeter and you wouldn't believe the number of people who replace his name with "Steven'. I am always like, 'huh'? It doesn't even sound close. He does the same thing your daughter did... he politely corrects them once, then simply changes their name when they don't get it right. Mark becomes Mike, Joe becomes John. You are so right... when its their name, its a much bigger deal.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The NCOIC of our orderly room at one assignment always pronounced my last name as "nelson" instead of Nielsen. Sgt Jones became Sgt "Jons" until he learned. He also had to retype several performance reports that I (or my supervisor) refused to sign because he didn't spell my last name correctly. And this was before computers. :D

cmt
cmt

I have a hyphenated surname and my wife uses her own name. In addition to this, I've always been known by my second name. You know it's a cold call when the caller asks for: Arthur instead of Clive Mr W instead of Mr M-T Mrs M-T instead of Ms W

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

you want equality, well here it is baby.

neilb
neilb

Where do you get justification for your definition of "polite"?

kybelboy
kybelboy

"You don't sweat much for a fat girl"

JamesRL
JamesRL

Jimmy Carr is a comedian. Sometimes comedians employ shock value to get a reaction from you. I wouldn't take it seriously though. James

JamesRL
JamesRL

My mother named me James. She and the family nicnamed me Jim, and called me that. When I got to High School, I asked to be called James. Only my parents, their siblings and my brothers call me Jim. So I don't appreciate it when some salesperson who doesn't know me from Adam calls me Jim, or much much worse, Jimmy. That is someone who is unlikely to get my business. James

KSoniat
KSoniat

Cool name - what's its origin? I named my son Malcolm (for my dad & grandfather) not realizing NOONE can spell it! We get Malcom, Malcomb, Malcombe etc. It's NOT that unusual but people just don't pay attention.

OurITLady
OurITLady

I've always said that things like being offered a seat should be on the basis of need not the sex they happened to be born. I have had men offer me a seat and have always said that "I am fine standing but thank you for the offer". I believe it's the same as holding doors open, offering to help someone carry a load, etc - I hold the door for someone behind me because it's bad manners to let it shut in their face not because of their sex, and I'll offer to help carry a load for anyone who appears to be struggling to manage it - again not based on their sex. If I'm struggling to carry something I would hope for an offer of help on that basis and not because I'm female. Thankfully the staff where I work are great like that, if they see me carrying a pile of equipment and I look like I'm managing they'll just offer to hold any doors in the path open to make it easier, if I'm trying to move one of the servers down a flight of stairs I can usually bank on getting offered a hand.

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

I do all that you do and more. I don't know how you misunderstood what I originally said but you obviously need to improve on your personality skills. I hope things go better for you. EMD

neilb
neilb

You have no point, other than that of a misogynist dinosaur. I was brought up to have good manners and to respect others. I open doors for other people, stand up when introduced to people, offer my seat on a full bus to people who need the seat more than me, offer to help carry heavy bags for those people weaker than me. The key word is "people". That's MY point. Would I offer my train or bus seat to a thirty year old woman who did not appear to be pregnant or in ill health? No. Why should I? Because she's wearing four-inch heels?

neilb
neilb

What an idiot. Who I was raised by doesn't come into it. Although I'm of a generation that was taught the archaic and misogynist subset of Arthurian Chivalry that you still obviously follow, I am now an adult and in the position to make my own decisions and the viewpoint that I have adopted for many years is that women are people. No better. No worse. No different. I will give up my seat to any man or woman who [b]requires[/b] that seat more than I. No other reason. Neil Consideration for women is no more important than consideration for men, and anyone who argues otherwise is a sexist dinosaur. You might want to step aside from your little power trip and try and view women as fellow members of the Human Race. :)

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

Because that's what you're supposed to do. Who raised you? EMD