When a public relations professional I know in North Carolina was just starting out, she made a whopper of a mistake: She messed up a client's phone number on a press release.
But it wasn't just any mess-up or any wrong number. The client, a meat processing company, had hired the rookie publicist's firm to promote a toll-free number that customers could call for recipes and coupons. Unfortunately, our budding young publicist got the prefix wrong.
"The phone number listed on the press release was 1-800-GET-PORK, and yes it was a porn number," she told me.
Fortunately, the president of her company got a good chuckle out of the goof.
"Since the release went through multiple people for approval, we all felt responsible," the junior publicist said.
Still, the publicist learned a valuable lesson from her barnyard blunder:
"To this day, I insist on personally calling every phone number that's listed on any material," she said.
Workplace gaffes happen. With companies downsizing and everyone doing the job of three people, how could they not? Either we misplace that extremely urgent quarterly report that's due on the boss' desk in five minutes or we miss a critical deadline that costs us our biggest client or we ask our manager who the Marilyn Manson look-alike in the break room is without realizing it's his wife.
So rather than remind you to pay attention to where you put those urgent reports, heed your deadlines and think before you open your mouth, let's focus on your recovery skills. Because how you attempt to bounce back from a workplace screw-up can make all the difference between having a desk to come back to in the morning and having to stand on the corner wearing a sandwich board with your resume on it.
Dear Boss, I Think You're a Bonehead
When Theresia Whitfield was a TV news producer in Washington, D.C., she was once out in the field with a reporter and photographer from her bureau who made some unflattering headlines of their own.
"The two men started complaining about the bureau chief," said Whitfield, who's now an independent business writer in Indianapolis. "We later found out that the reporter's cell phone, which was in his coat pocket, had somehow gotten bumped and dialed the bureau chief's direct line."
Unbeknownst to the two gripers, the chief heard every word.
"Both were written up and put on probation," Whitfield said.
So what should you do if you, too, get caught bashing the boss?
"If you have the courage to complain about your boss in public, then you have to have the courage to go to them and talk about it once you've been caught," said Cynthia Shapiro, career consultant and author of "Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know -- and What to Do About Them."
In other words, if you want to keep your job, you need to transition from traitor to team player -- and fast. To do so, Shapiro said, apologize in person, as soon as humanly possible (hiding behind e-mail won't cut it).
Tell the big cheese, "My frustrations have been boiling over and I didn't know how to talk to you about it," Shapiro advised. Diplomatically lay out your gripes. Then offer, "I'd love to work this out with you and I'd like to start fresh if we can."
Otherwise, don't be surprised if you find yourself at the top of the layoff list next time budget cuts roll around, if not sooner.
Oops, Didn't Mean to CC You on That
It's old news that gossiping about co-workers or sending suggestive missives via e-mail on company time and equipment is asking for trouble. Either your message about how hideous the boss' outfit is gets intercepted by Big Brother or you accidentally cc the big cheese herself.
One woman I spoke to in New York (let's call her "Leslie") witnessed this carbon copy catastrophe while working as controller at the corporate headquarters of a retail chain.
"The company was run so poorly that any antics were tolerated," Leslie said. "It became custom for [my team] to randomly jump on each other's computer and send an e-mail to another employee within their circle."
"All is fun and games until one day, one woman sent an e-mail from a male employee to another employee that said something sexual. When she went to cc the rest of their circle, she erroneously cc'd the COO of the company."
Not surprisingly, HR was called to the scene and the errant e-mailer lost her job.
I realize lots of you are bored out of your skull at work. But imagine how bored you'll be watching eight hours of Court TV after collecting your pink slip.
When it comes to sending smutty, back-stabbing or otherwise inappropriate e-mails at work (not to mention hijacking a colleague's inbox), it can be tough to recover. Better to save any nasty opinions and not-safe-for-work humor for when you're off line and off work.
My Dog Ate the Product Release
Of course, try as we might to play by the corporate rules, we're bound to have a Homer Simpson moment at one time or another.
Just ask Rene Churchill, a software programmer in Waterbury Center, Vt. While cleaning up the storage space on his former employer's file server, he deleted a crucial product release the day it was slated to be sent to the company's biggest customers.
"After realizing that I'd screwed up, I went to the VP of engineering and told him first, jumping two layers of management," Churchill said. He also told the VP what steps he was taking to rebuild the release and when the fix would be ready.
"Once he understood that everything that could be done was being done, he wasn't too bent out of shape," Churchill said.
As for Churchill's immediate manager, "she was mostly relieved that she didn't have to break the bad news to the VP," he said.
According to Shapiro, Churchill did everything right. After all, management doesn't appreciate being blindsided.
"If they know that you're going to come to them and craft a strategy to work it out, it's going to make them trust you that much more," she explained.
"You want people to really think of you as a solid employee because when you do make a mistake you'll get a lot more leeway," Shapiro said.
"A lot of times if you're accused of something or there's a misunderstanding, your reputation may be the only thing that saves you."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.