Caught with Your Foot in Your Mouth at Work? Elaine Varelas Offers Advice

Elaine Varelas offers insight on navigating out of an embarrassing work situation.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –

Q: In a recent web conference with my coworkers, Anna and Barbara, Anna was sharing her screen with everyone when Barbara suggested we plan another meeting the following week. Barbara notoriously schedules way too many meetings, and it’s incredibly frustrating. So, I emailed Anna saying “Oh my god, again?!” completely forgetting that her screen was visible to everyone. Barbara saw it. I called her immediately to apologize for my unprofessional display of impatience. But I now regret taking all the blame and not honestly explaining how I felt. Can I go back and say something, or did I already do enough damage?


A: Getting caught with your foot in your mouth is never a comfortable position, and it’s understandable that your first instinct was to do damage control, apologizing profusely and casting no blame on Barbara. But you’re right—you did miss an opportunity to give your colleague what appears to be some much-needed feedback.

At some point in the future, when you and Barbara can talk face to face—not over the phone or on another web conference—let her know that you value a positive relationship with her, that you were horrified and regret the way you communicated your feelings, but that you do want to discuss the initial problem of the extra meetings. Explain that her habit of calling unnecessary meetings for work that could be completed in a single session puts a strain on your time and, ultimately, on your productivity and that of the team. Addressing the issue in this context will allow you and Barbara to have a more constructive conversation about the use of meeting time—and neither of you will feel under attack or that there is any blame at all.

As awkward as this situation may have been for you, there’s an important lesson to be learned. It’s likely that, if your venting email hadn’t been seen, your frustration with Barbara would have remained a grumble under your breath. That isn’t helping anyone. Remember—developmental feedback can be delivered nicely and doesn’t have to be a point of conflict. In the moment, you could have said “You know, Barbara, I actually don’t think we need another meeting at this point, let’s wrap this up today.” Then, in a future one-on-one—not in front of other colleagues or in the heat of the moment—you can say something like, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you have a habit of calling meetings that aren’t always needed, which can be frustrating to the team and a hindrance to our progress.” This will give you the opportunity to hear her views and then work together to find a solution to the situation.


The obvious warning in this situation is to watch what and when you email—you never know who you’ve accidentally “replied all” to or whose screen is visible to the masses. But an even stronger lesson is not to sit on a frustration with a colleague—especially if it’s a topic for discussion with others. Being able to give feedback respectfully and in a timely manner to your colleague could prevent a similarly embarrassing situation from occurring in the future.