How to: Deal with awkward situations at work

How to deal with awkward situations at the workplace

Whether you’re trying extra hard to impress on your first day in a new job or you’re practically part of the furniture, awkward situations at work happen to us all.

And, like many embarrassing social situations, how you react to them will often determine how others see you and, indeed, how you see yourself.

If you’re particularly prone to these uncomfortable instances, relax. We’re here to help.  We’ve already covered our top five irritating office habits and how to deal with them, but here are a few of the most common awkward situations that may arise in the workplace, and how you should deal with them:

1. You are overwhelmed by a co-worker’s scent (natural, or otherwise)

Fragrance is subjective, but if you’re finding it particularly difficult to work along someone’s overwhelming scent, it’s best to get it out in the open.

If you’re close to your fragrantly-challenged co-worker, try approaching them directly (and discreetly) to tell them the truth. It won’t be easy, but we can guarantee they’ll thank you (in the long run, at least). If you’re not so close, try finding a mutual acquaintance and explain the situation. They will then be able to pass on the information and hearing it from a friend should help to soften the blow.

Do say: I’m so sorry, but I think I may have an allergy to someone’s perfume. I’m so sensitive!

Don’t say: Can you please open a window? Your choice of fragrance is making my eyes water.

2. You forget someone’s name

So you’re showing a new member of the team around the office. They’re laughing at your little jokes. You’ve shown them where the fire exits are and you’ve gone through the health & safety manual. Everything seems to be going well. That is until you reach a bank of desks to begin a new round of introductions and, suddenly, you draw a blank.

Although undoubtedly a faux-pas, forgetting someone’s name is quite commonplace and, with the right amount of humour and self-deprecation, you’ll pass it off with relative ease. A simple ‘Hi guys, we’re just doing the intros. Would you mind saying a few lines about yourself…’ is much easier than ‘And this is another very valuable and memorable employee. Sorry, you’ll have to remind me…’ 

If this isn’t possible, avoid guessing at all costs.  You are not that lucky.

Do say: I’m so sorry, I’m terrible with names. I’d forget my own if I didn’t have this name tag.

Don’t say: I want to say Dave… No wait, Tom. Or is it Neil? No… It’s Dave, isn’t it.

3. You’re alone in a lift with someone you’ve been avoiding

It could be an overeager co-worker, an unfriendly supervisor or the guy from accounts who’s been chasing you for that report you still haven’t finished. Whoever the subject, the approach is broadly the same, although you do have a few options.

If you really don’t get along with the individual in question and don’t want to appear fake, a cursory nod or smile will usually suffice. In all other situations, feel free to say hello, ask how they are, and leave it at that. They will be just as aware of the situation as you are, and will usually appreciate that you’ve chosen to break the silence.

Small talk is acceptable, but only recommended if you’re particularly adept at it. If not, you may only make the situation more uncomfortable. However, this advice will vary depending on personality, and length of lift journey (in high-rise situations, take a book and hope for the best).

Do say: Hi, how’s your day going so far?

Don’t say: Well, this is awkward…

4. You accidentally click reply instead of forward

Some awkward situations can be attributed to technology. Accidentally sending something you shouldn’t to the very person you don’t want to see it falls into this category, although almost always, there is a human at fault somewhere.

The only thing you can do in this situation is come clean. Take the person in question aside and express your sincere regret in making the mistake. Apologise for any offence caused, listen to their reaction, and say that you hope both parties can now move on from this issue.

From your personal point of view, the thing you should take most from this situation is learning to ask yourself about what the consequences would be if your message ended up in the wrong inbox – every time you send an email.  You should also take care to learn the important difference between ‘reply’ and ‘forward’. Alternatively, if you’re using G-Mail, you might want to take note of the ‘Undo Send’ feature ahead of time.

Do say:  I’m very sorry, this won’t happen again.

Don’t say: Can’t you take a joke?

5. You accidentally find out some office gossip

Wherever there is a water-cooler and an overly intrusive co-worker, there will be office gossip. Our advice is to avoid it, at all costs. The moment you become part of the proceedings you begin to ask for trouble. Even if you’re not involved, if the piece of information gets back to the source, you will look just as guilty as the busy-body who told you about it.

It’s also vitally important you consider the feelings of those being talked about. In many instances, what begins as ‘innocent gossip’ can escalate to full-scale bullying. Is divulging this delicate piece of information worth jeopardising your position for? (Hint: If the answer’s yes, it may be time to look for a new one…)

Do say: This conversation makes me uncomfortable, can we please change the subject. (Walking away also acceptable for those who dislike conflict).

Don’t say: I’m telling!

Final thoughts 

Tact is key. Many awkward moments can be circumnavigated when handled with the right level of sensitivity, discretion and diplomacy.

Wherever possible, use self-deprecation. Owning up to your mistakes will demonstrate what sort of person you are, and also help you more effectively express regret without the awkwardness.

Honesty is usually the best policy (although, in some instances, white lies may be necessary).

Finally, if all else fails, there is one more failsafe tip which may help you out of a sticky situation: pretend to receive an important and unavoidable phone call, and excuse yourself from the conversation. Who said running away never solves anything?

Got any tips on how you’ve avoided an awkward situation at work? Share them with us below, or tell us on twitter @reedcouk.