8 Awkward Work Situations and Brilliant Ways to Handle Them

Office, employees, co-workers, computer

Workers at The Office | NBC

Your work day is going well. You’ve finished all your projects early so you decide to take an early break and grab lunch with your co-worker. During lunch, you begin having an interesting conversation about your families. However, the conversation suddenly halts after you make a comment about her child that doesn’t seem to sit well. Her face changes, and then before you know it, she’s asking the waiter to bring the check.

No matter how competent you are, you’re bound to make a blunder at some point in your career. Although it’s embarrassing to make a mistake or look incompetent at work, the important part is how well you recover. The ability to gracefully navigate an uncomfortable work situation could impact your livelihood, so it’s important to know how to respond when you’re thrown an unexpected curveball.

When handling an awkward situation at work, it’s necessary to make sure you manage it with care. An inappropriate response could cost you in the long-run. Career expert Catherine Bell told the Toronto Sun that certain situations are best handled by a manager. “Before addressing a situation, it is imperative to ask yourself whether you are the appropriate person to deal with it. Many situations are best handled by supervisors or managers,” said Bell.

Here are eight awkward work situations and brilliant ways to handle them. But, the last situation may immediately result in you having to find a new job.

1. You start crying

The Bachelor

Ashley I. on The Bachelor | ABC

The world of work can be a cold, harsh place. It’s full of backstabbers, idea stealers, and downright mean people. So it’s not unusual if you find yourself in a situation where you have the urge to cry. The only thing is, instead of comfort, you’ll likely be met with stares or nervous whispers.

What to do: As soon as you feel the emotion rise within you, make your best effort to get to the nearest restroom. No one will be able to see you, so you can have a good cry in private. Pull yourself together quickly by taking a deep breath and throwing some cold water on your face.

2. You make an unflattering comment about a co-worker — and he hears you

Worker at The Office | NBC

Dwight Schrute in The Office | NBC

There’s almost nothing worse than talking badly about a co-worker, only to discover that he or she is right behind you.

What to do: The only thing you can do in this situation is apologize immediately. It’s hard to come back from an embarrassing situation like this. And don’t be surprised if your co-worker gives you the cold shoulder for the rest of your tenure. The best thing you can do is learn from your mistake and keep your comments to yourself. No one wants to work with an office gossip.

3. You’re in an elevator with the CEO and don’t know what to say

man covering mouth

Man covering mouth | iStock.com/Pinkypills

Sharing an elevator with strangers or with co-workers you don’t know well can be uncomfortable. There’s often pressure to make witty chit-chat in a compressed amount of time. But what should you do when the person you’re sharing the elevator with is the CEO of your company? The pressure is definitely on now.

What to do: Whatever you do, don’t remain silent. Push your nerves aside and at least say hello. While you should speak, don’t start a conversation that would take a long time to finish or ask a question that requires a lengthy explanation. Now is not the time to ask the CEO about the company’s long-term digital strategy. Instead, you could talk about an interesting work-related book you’re reading or about a trip you took over the weekend. Keep your conversation light, short, and sweet.

4. A co-worker finds your resume in the copy machine

man with resume

Man with resume | iStock.com

First of all, never do your job search or print your resume at work. This is unprofessional behavior and could get you fired on the spot. Job hunting during company time is a big no-no. Save your job-search activities for when you get home.

What to do: If word gets back to your boss that you’ve been working on your resume during company time, you’ll have no other choice but to be honest. Admit that you were looking for a job, apologize, and then have a meeting about why you’re looking to move on. Perhaps you and your supervisor can work on ways to make your current job align more with your career goals. Instead of lying or making excuses for your behavior, use your blunder as an opportunity to make a positive career change. And if things don’t work out and you’re fired for stealing company time, at least you’ve already gotten a head start on your job hunt.

5. You ask a co-worker a question that he or she found offensive

man covering mouth

Man covering mouth | iStock.com

When you meet a new co-worker or desire to get to know someone better, it’s natural to ask questions. There’s nothing wrong or unusual about being curious. However, you can quickly get yourself into trouble by asking a rude or invasive question. The tricky part is, sometimes it’s hard to tell if your co-worker will find your query offensive. If you happen to ask a question that causes your co-worker to shrink back in surprise or disgust, you’ve likely stepped over a line.

What to do: Apologize immediately. Tell your teammate you didn’t realize your question was offensive. If it was simply a misunderstanding, briefly explain what you meant — then move on. Lengthy attempts to explain might make the situation worse, so keep it concise.

6. Your co-worker throws you under the bus during a meeting

work meeting

Work meeting | iStock.com

Being blamed for a work mistake you didn’t make doesn’t feel very good. However, you’ll feel even worse if you’re being blamed in front of half the company. Even the nicest co-worker could play dirty when his back is against the wall, so be prepared for the day it happens — because it will.

What to do: Instead of letting the bus wheels roll over you, fight back. But don’t attack your co-worker during the meeting. This will only make you look bad. Instead, schedule a meeting with your boss so you can explain exactly what happened.

7. Your co-worker steals your idea

businessman shouting r

Angry businessman | iStock.com/Tomwang112

Having your idea stolen after you’ve worked so hard is like getting punched in the gut. Once you’ve gotten over the shock, it’s time to take action.

What to do: Meet with your boss and let him or her know that the idea your co-worker took credit for is actually yours. Make sure you can provide proof, such as emails, so you can make your case stronger.

8. You’re caught in an office romance

co-workers flirting

Co-workers flirting | iStock.com

An office romance can be sweet or it can turn sour really fast. If you and your office love are discovered by a co-worker, you’ll have a sticky situation on your hands. Things can get especially hairy if you’re dating the boss or if you’re breaking the company’s policy against office romances.

What to do: If your company has a strict policy against dating a co-worker, you may have no other choice than to prepare to look for a new job. It’s possible someone may let the news leak that you’re breaking the rules. If your employer decides to let it slide, make sure you do your best to keep your relationship with your partner professional at work. Even so, if the two of you continue to get serious, you may want to eventually consider working separately.

Reducing awkward work moments

Seinfeld's Kramer

Seinfeld‘s Kramer | TBS YouTube

If you find that you’re having too many awkward work moments, it’s time to refresh your social skills. Bad office behavior, whether it’s unintentional or not, can get you in hot water. Most employers are looking for well-developed soft skills when making a decision to hire or promote an employee, so it’s important to make sure you understand the basics of office etiquette. Approximately 77% of employers say soft skills (attributes associated with your personality) are just as important as hard skills (skills needed to perform a specific job function).

If you’re clueless about handling certain work situations, find a mentor in your field who can offer some advice on how to thrive in your industry. Another way to improve your soft skills at work is to read a good book. Three books that may help you reduce the number of awkward moments at work include:

In addition, check out websites such as Ask a Manager and Evil HR Lady. These sites offer a humorous, yet informative take on dealing with office politics.

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