Tech & Work

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

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