No matter how progressive, open and casual your workplace, there are some conversations that should be off-limits no matter what. A new study from corporate and leadership education and training firm VitalSmarts found that of 775 respondents to a recent VitalSmarts survey on workplace behavior, 83 percent of employees witnessed their colleagues say something that has had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations and businesses.
The study also found that 69 percent of employees admit to personally committing a catastrophic comment. These slips of the tongue and momentary lapses of judgment can be just as damaging on an individual’s career. Thirty-one percent say it cost them a promotion, a raise or even their job. Twenty-seven percent say it undercut or destroyed a working relationship, and 11 percent say it destroyed their reputation.
“These conversations are so catastrophic because they allow others a glimpse of our ‘true’ selves. Human beings, especially in a professional setting, are all wearing a ‘mask’ of how we’re supposed to be and act. The data we trust the most is what we get when others don’t intend for us to have that — unguarded moments, proprietary opinions, slips of the tongue,” says David Maxfield, co-author of the study and vice president of research at VitalSmarts.
According to VitalSmarts research, here are the top 5 most common catastrophic conversations you should avoid at all costs, and how to recover.
1. Suicide by feedback
This is one of the most common scenarios, Maxfield says; perhaps your judgment’s skewed or you’ve read your colleague — or worse, your boss or manager — wrong and decide to chime in with feedback when you’d be better off staying silent. In most cases, unless someone specifically asks for feedback and that feedback can be delivered tactfully, privately and discreetly, perhaps it’s better to say nothing.
“‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’ — that adage is true in what our research found. One survey respondent says he gave his manager feedback in a public meeting. While he didn’t feel the feedback was especially harsh, what he didn’t realize was that his manager’s boss was in attendance — and the respondent’s manager felt ambushed and humiliated,” Maxfield says.
2. Gossip karma
This can happen in any situation where you are exposing your true feelings about a person or a situation, says Maxfield. It could even happen if you’re rehearsing how to approach a difficult conversation with a colleague or manager, or if you’re just venting to a work friend — depending on your level of trust and understanding, it could really backfire, he says.
“It’s easy to make a lapse in judgment or trust the wrong colleague, even if you’re just trying to blow off some steam or even if you’re trying to do the right thing and practice how to approach a difficult situation,” he says. It’s a better idea to talk to a spouse, a personal friend or a close sibling — as long as those people don’t have any connection to your workplace.
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3. Taboo topics
Just say no to discussing politics, religion or any other emotionally charged topic in the workplace, Maxfield says. One survey respondent says that in a meeting they made what they thought was an innocuous comment about the fact that they only watched Fox News. That offhand comment quickly devolved into a heated political battle, and tarnished their reputation at work from that moment on.
4. Word rage
Everyone’s had at least one of those moments at work when you lose your temper or become overly frustrated and fed up, says Maxfield. But be careful how you express that frustration — it could cost you.
“There’s a fine line between if you say, ‘Who came up with this ridiculous idea?’ or when you use an obscenity; then the attack becomes personal — especially if you’re using the ‘F’ word. In an example from our survey, a respondent says a colleague yelled, ‘Who’s the dumbass who had this idea?’ and it was a very poor response, to say the least. When you move from the general, ‘This is a bad idea’ to ‘dumbass,’ you’re definitely crossing a line,” Maxfield says.
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5. Reply all
This situation could be chalked up to clumsiness, being rushed or just not focusing enough attention on the task at hand, says Maxwell, but it still has the potential to be destructive in the workplace.
“Pay attention — double-check to whom that email’s going; reread your reply, out loud, if possible. This is one of the easier blunders to avoid, since you have time before you hit ‘Send’ to make sure you’re saying the appropriate thing to the appropriate audience,” he says.
How to recover
It is possible to recover from these catastrophes, but it takes time, effort and sincerity, according to Maxfield. You have to have some self-awareness and understand what it is you’re apologizing for, first of all, and do so without blaming the victim and making them feel ashamed for being offended or hurt.
“The bandage has to be as large or larger than the wound. You have to go beyond a token apology. Start with an apology, but the most persuasive way to mitigate the damage is to make a personal sacrifice — of your time, your ego or your money. In an example from the survey, one woman shared that she was on a conference call with a group of managers and directors. She thought she’d muted herself, but — you can guess where this is going — she hadn’t. She said, ‘Can you believe these idiots are our managers and directors?!’ To try to make it right, she spent her own money and time and personally flew to meet each offended party in person to apologize,” Maxfield says. She did not say whether or not her reputation or her professional standing was restored, but at least she made the sincere effort — sometimes, that’s all you can do, Maxfield adds. “You can’t talk your way out of a situation you behaved yourself into,” he says.