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Foot in mouth? Come on, be brave

Own up to e-mails inadvertently sent to bosses or coworkers

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You often hear stories of workers inadvertently sending an e-mail meant for a colleague to the entire office, or even worse -- to their boss.

The e-mail's content is often embarrassing or reveals not-so-flattering comments about a co-worker or a manager.

Workplace experts say these faux pas happen more often than we'd like, considering we've become increasingly lax about e-mail usage. Who hasn't absentmindedly hit the "reply all" button or forwarded e-mails to the wrong person in the course of doing a million other things?

So what do you do when you're caught in a similar situation? Do you crawl underneath the desk or face up to your mistake?

Suck up your pride and admit your error to the co-worker or boss who was at the receiving end of your inappropriate or nasty e-mail.

"If you pretend that it never happened, you'll get in worse trouble," says Bev Rosen, president of Wellness at Work, a workplace training and consulting firm in Lutherville.

Donna Flagg, a principal at Krysalis Group, a management and leadership training firm in New York, says bosses want to know the truth.

"If they came in and backpedaled, lied or shifted the responsibility to someone else, I would be furious," Flagg says.

One of the main issues that an employee needs to resolve with a colleague or manager is why the worker did not go directly to the person involved to air any complaints or comments, Flagg says. Here's something to consider: Do the comments reflect a bigger conflict with a co-worker or boss, or are they a result of a bad mood gone bad?

In the end, the awkward situation could lead to a better relationship, Rosen says.

"The bird has come out of the bird cage anyway, and sometimes, our subconscious works in weird ways," she says. "The inadvertent way is an opportunity rather than a crisis."

From the mailbag

Office cliques can benefit workers if they're handled professionally, as I wrote in a column two weeks ago. But David, a reader from Baltimore, asks how supervisors can manage such groups when they become problematic.

In situations where the clique impacts morale and productivity, the supervisor could assign projects so that members of the group have to work with others, suggests Aaron Nurick, professor of management and psychology at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. He says most cliques form because members have regular interaction.

"It is not wise to try to purposefully confront and break up a group since that will only engender resistance," Nurick says, "and a powerful informal group on the defensive can be quite disruptive or destructive to overall goals."

Patricia, of Arnold, says cliques at her job create "competition among themselves for recognition and bragging rights."

"The sad part is the boss has yet to figure this out," she adds. "This leaves the real workers to pick up the detritus without compensation."

So tell me about your foot-in-mouth situation at work. How did you handle it? And what else is on your mind about life at work? Send your stories, tips and questions to working@baltsun.com. Please include your first name and your city.

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