By Robert DiGiacomo
Years later, I still remember that sinking feeling, just after I'd hit the Send button after writing an email complaining about an editor. My worst virtual fear was quickly confirmed: Yes, I had sent my bit of snark to the editor instead of my friend--and no, the editor wasn't amused.
Although he initially refused to work with me again, he eventually accepted my apology, and we developed a strong working relationship.
Know when to apologize
Taking responsibility is the way to go when you've committed such a faux pas, according to Alexandra Levit, the author of "New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career." "You must make it right by acknowledging the email," Levit says. "Apologize in person and say that you acted in anger. If it's part of an ongoing issue, ask what you can do to improve the relationship between the two of you."
But knowing when to respond to a workplace embarrassment--and when to move on--is key to handling these awkward moments.
Know when to ignore the incident
Whether the problem is a snarky email, a wardrobe malfunction, or an office romance gone wrong, some things really are better off left unsaid.
"If there's nothing you can do to make it better, by and large it's better to ignore it," says Barbara Pachter, a coauthor of "New Rules @ Work: 79 Etiquette Tips, Tools, and Techniques to Get Ahead and Stay Ahead." "When you bring it up, you're drawing attention to it."
When John, 45, then a junior employee at a publishing company in New York, accidentally hit "reply all," with his sarcastic comments about a director being a cheapskate, he first tried to recall it. That didn't work, so he (wisely) did nothing.
"I never did get called to the director's office, and I never did hear about the e-mail," he says. "I spent the next six months avoiding the guy, but I didn't get fired."
This do-nothing strategy holds true for situations triggered by social media, such as when an unflattering photo of you surfaces on another's feed.
"I wouldn't address these personal details unless directly asked by a colleague, and most people won't ask if it's a sensitive matter," Levit says.
What about office romance?
Discretion also works if you date a coworker, but sometimes it's impossible to keep such interactions private.
For example, Gigi's coworkers at a Seattle ad agency knew all about her relationship with a fellow employee because it was a very social office. After their breakup, they continued to hang out with the group.
"As long as you're not working for that person, and it's not interfering with work, it's nobody's business," Pachter says.
Prepare for wardrobe malfunctions
Perhaps nothing can be as mortifying as getting a stain on your shirt just before a big meeting, or realizing your zipper was down when you bumped into the big boss in the hallway.
Krystn, a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, still remembers the start of her first job for the wrong reason. The fabric on her "professional" blouse didn't breathe and she was nervous -- a bad combination when being introduced to colleagues.
"I had huge sweat stains, and was trying to shake people's hands without moving my arms--and they could see," she recalls.
To avoid these types of scenarios, keep a spare jacket, stain remover, and sewing kit on hand if you can. Otherwise, you have the choice of acting like the problem's not there--or acknowledging the elephant on your shirt by making a joke.
"If you can have a good line, it will usually break the ice and then people can ignore it," Pachter says. One the flip side, if you notice a colleague has one too many buttons undone or an unzipped fly, say something.
"You have to be upfront and discreetly say the fly is undone," Pachter says. "If you can save someone embarrassment, please do."