Life is full of awkward situations and the workplace is not immune. From a staff member with bad breath to inappropriate conversations about religion or politics, our ability to deal with awkward office moments can mean the difference between a positive working environment and unnecessary embarrassment.
To act or not to act
When dealing with awkward moments, the first thing to consider is whether a reaction is actually warranted. We sometimes overthink things and in some instances ignoring the problem can, in fact, make it go away. This can be useful in situations where one-off events would cause more embarrassment than good were they to be highlighted.
There are, however, some awkward office moments that demand action. These can include inappropriate advances, inappropriateness towards clients or situations where safety is compromised. Avoiding issues out of embarrassment will not only encourage them to continue, but can jeopardise your business.
Finding the words
If you do decide to address an awkward issue, it's vital that you consider the impact of your words. Put yourself in the offender's shoes and consider how best to approach the situation. It can be useful to highlight what should be done rather what is currently occurring, so that the focus is on action rather than blame. Use kind, gentle phrases such as "Would you mind if" or "May I suggest" and remember to always look at the person you are talking to. In embarrassing moments, we sometimes avoid direct eye contact. This can make the person feel ostracised, and what you want is for them to feel you are genuinely trying to connect with them and help them overcome an issue.
Direct vs. subtle?
There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach and each situation and employee will benefit from different approaches. Some people welcome direct feedback and understand that embarrassment is not intended, whereas others may feel singled out or even offended. Whatever the approach, be sure to keep things friendly. It can also be helpful to put some of the focus on yourself. For example, rather than "It's really annoying when you talk loudly on the phone" you could say "I'm finding it hard to concentrate. Would you mind speaking a little more quietly on the phone?".
Set the standard
Awkward situations can catch us by surprise, so it's important that you make your position on dealing with them clear before they arise. For example, you could tell your staff that were you to someday need to be made aware that your perfume or cologne is too strong, you would want to know about it, and that you assume they would want to know as well. This way, addressing issues becomes a way of helping the other person rather than pointing out faults.
When awkward office moments arise, discreetness is key - only involve those who are essential to resolving the issue. While you may be tempted to avoid similar problems in future by highlighting them to the team, it can quickly become obvious to staff members who the hypothetical character in your story actually is.
Finally, a large part of how embarrassed we feel is based on the amount of attention placed on the event by both ourselves and others. Privacy and dignity has less to do with others not noticing what happened and more to do with not bringing attention to it. While things take time to be forgotten, it is important that you quickly move on when an issue is resolved. Even if the awkwardness continues to be felt, act as though it is forgotten so all parties can move forward.
This article represents the views of the author only and not those of American Express.
Nick Petrovic is a registered psychologist and head of clinic at the Mind Profile Psychology Clinic and has more than 10 years' experience in the allied health and business. Nick has contributed to regular columns in more than a dozen business magazines and newspapers, advising on issues such as mental health, work related stress, strategic planning, business analysis and human resources.