Football games. Baseball games. A bar or a restaurant. On a plane or a bus or a train. These and other public places seem like places where you can talk shop with a colleague but beware: You never know who might be able to overhear your conversation.
Imagine for a moment that you are at a baseball game with a colleague. During the fourth inning you begin talking to your colleague about a client. Unbeknownst to you, a different client is sitting behind you and overhears your conversation. Suddenly, you feel a tap on your shoulder and the stranger informs you that he is also a client of your firm and has overheard your conversation. You immediately apologize and express your appreciation for letting you know he has heard your conversation.
Unfortunately, the situation isn’t resolved just with your apology. You can’t be sure the client who overheard the conversation won’t be in contact with your boss about the incident. After all, from his perspective, if you are willing to talk about client x, what guarantee does he have that his affairs are confidential? You have two choices: Don’t bring it up in the hope that your boss never hears about it, or go to your boss and let her know what happened.
If you don’t bring it up to your boss, you’re banking on your boss never hearing about it. But you have no control over whether the client will call your boss or not. If she does hear about it, you are likely to be in serious trouble. No boss likes being waylaid by a client without any forewarning. Alternatively, addressing the problem with her right away is the right choice. While very difficult for you, it at least gives her a heads up, and she can proactively contact the client in hopes of limiting damage. While you might still be in hot water, the consequences to you will be less than if you had said nothing.
Mistakes happen at work. The reality is that it’s not a question of if, it’s a matter of when—How you handle an error can make all the difference. These two steps will help you resolve a problem with integrity. First own up to the error by apologizing and taking responsibility for it. Second, whenever possible, identify a solution so you don’t put the task of correcting the problem on your boss.
As for the mistake at the ballgame, the take away here is that talking about business in a public place where your conversation can be overheard by strangers is a major mistake. Whether it’s at a sporting event, a commuter train, a restaurant, a bar, or the theater, you can’t be sure who may be within earshot. Be safe by not talking business in public. You’ll be glad you did.
If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.
Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.