Taking work gaffes in stride

PHOTO: Taking work gaffes in stride

A few weeks ago, my husband was tinkering around with LinkedIn, the professional networking website, when he made a decidedly unprofessional blunder.

A pop-up window asked him if he wanted to invite some contacts to his LinkedIn network and a brief glance showed the names of a few colleagues he knew well, so he clicked on "yes".

To his horror, the next screen said: "Congratulations! You have sent invites to 212 people."

It turned out that his failure to scroll down in the pop-up window meant that he hadn't seen the other 200 or so potential contacts that had been suggested by LinkedIn, based on e-mail addresses pulled from my husband's Gmail account.

These included not only people whose names he didn't recognise but also acquaintances he had only briefly met through work, former co-workers he was barely on speaking terms with, and - worst of all - some senior bosses.

Fortunately, his slip-up had no major adverse consequences. Over the next few days, lots of people accepted his invites to connect on LinkedIn - not including his bosses - and only a handful replied to ask, "Who are you?"

As career gaffes go, that was not the worst. But it illustrates how technology has made it much easier these days to do the one thing we all dread: commit an embarrassing mistake at work.

This refers not to serious loss-making, lawsuit-resulting screw-ups that are likely to ruin your career forever, but rather more minor everyday blunders that can hurt your reputation and, if repeated, possibly cost you your job.

Some of the most frequent errors involve e-mail: forgetting a crucial attachment, prematurely sending a half-completed e-mail, or accidentally hitting "reply all" when gossiping about a co-worker or complaining about the boss.

Sometimes, even a minor blooper can turn more serious. An acquaintance once ran into some hardware problems and couldn't stop her e-mail programme from sending the same e-mail over and over again to a group of clients.

By the time she managed to halt the process, more than 100 duplicate e-mail messages had been sent out to each client, resulting in a number of irate phone calls - and my acquaintance being let go in the next retrenchment exercise.

Mr Josh Goh, assistant director of corporate services at The GMP Group, advises that when such e-mail "accidents" occur, the first course of action should be to "stem the bleeding" by recalling the erroneous e-mail and sending a new one immediately. "However, if your actions are too late and the unintended recipient has read the e-mail, make a personal telephone call to apologise if it's very serious," he says.

Another rich area of potential missteps is social media. From racist comments and posts about job complaints to racy photos and drunk videos, many people have lost their jobs through their failure to navigate this new world.

But the trapdoors inherent in social media are not so different from those in another, more traditional minefield: the booze-filled office party.

Both provide a forum for lowering one's inhibitions and blurring the line between personal and professional personas, creating a situation ripe for misconduct. If an error of judgment does occur, the best course of action is not to try and ignore what has happened, says Mr Ronald Lee, managing director of PrimeStaff Management Services.

"Face up to it squarely, show up at work the next day and be business as usual," he suggests.

"Just name the elephant in the room and apologise to the affected parties for your behaviour and state that you will ensure it will not happen again. Acknowledging the faux pas is a sign of maturity and most people will be forgiving enough to try to look past it."

Experts say that while most minor slip-ups at work could dent your bosses' image of you and cause endless nights of worrying, they are generally unlikely to signal the end of your career.

How you deal with them, however, could mark you out as being destined for success - or its opposite. One piece of advice I've picked up over the years is that after making a mistake, you should follow up by performing two work tasks outstandingly well to restore your reputation.

A Forbes article earlier this year also recommended that people turn their mistakes into an interviewing tool. This is because interviewers love to ask questions about candidates' past mistakes, how they dealt with them, and what they learnt. "The answer will broadcast how someone handles a crisis and whether the experience made him or her more effective at work or in life," the article said.

Recruitment website glassdoor.com suggests a six-stage process to deal with your error: Pull yourself together, confess the error, move quickly to clean up the mess, don't dwell on it, learn from it, and move forward.

But the best advice - certainly the most poetic - may come from poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could," he said. "Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day."

fiochan@sph.com.sg


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