Mute button snafu leads to insult heard by everyone

Q. During a conference call break, one of my colleagues pressed the mute button and then blurted out, ‘What an idiot! Can you believe he actually said that?’ We quickly found out that the mute button wasn’t working when a voice came over the speaker saying, ‘We can still hear you.’ What should we have done at that moment?

A. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much good to close the barn door after all the cows have gotten out. At this point the only thing the perpetrator and his boss can do is to immediately apologize. “We’re so sorry. Dave spoke out of turn. There really is no excuse for his comment. Please accept our apology. We want to continue with the call and are interested in what each person has to say.”

In addition, to close the loop Dave needs to take responsibility and follow up the conference call with a letter of apology to the person he was referring to.


The real issue here isn’t the mute button, it’s that Dave forgot a cardinal rule: Never say anything derogatory during a conference call. It’s too easy for a mistake to occur, like a mute button not working. At the end of the call be sure the call has disconnected before starting any discussion about it. For instance, you may think all parties have hung up when one or more connections may still be open.

Here are several more tips to make your conference calls successful:

  • Have everyone in the same room at each location. It’s helpful to see your colleagues’ non-verbal cues as they speak.
  • Ask each person on the call to introduce themselves so the others can more easily identify who is speaking by their voice: “Hello, this is Sam Mathis, senior account manager at the Manchester office
  • Review the agenda for the call at the start and specify when the call will end.
  • Ten minutes before the end of the call, the organizer should announce the time so people can begin to wrap up.
  • At the end of the call the organizer should reiterate the key points or decisions and review any to-dos that have been agreed on during the call.
  • After the call the organizer should send out minutes which include decisions and to-dos.

A new capability is the video conference call. The benefit is that people can see your expressions and body language in addition to hearing your words. The problem is people can see you. If you’re on a video call:

  • Look at the camera when talking, not at your screen so you create eye contact with the people on the other end of the call.
  • Beware of bad habits: picking your nose, chewing your fingernails, playing with your hair.
  • Avoid doing other tasks like reading mail.
  • Smile and sit up so you look engaged and interested and not bored.
  • Use your hands to gesture. You’ll appear more animated and be more interesting to watch as you talk.

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