Five Tips for Handling Embarrassment at Work

Embarrassing things happen at work. You can't stop them any more than you can stop breathing or junk mail.


One of my most embarrassing moments took place in a small Tacoma law firm. I was working for two attorneys in a cramped office space—my office (aka the reception area), two attorney offices and a bathroom.

On that memorable day, I was typing away and drinking pop, while clients waited to see their respective attorneys. Suddenly, I felt a belch coming on. Not a little delicate, hide-it-behind-your-hand type, but huge, rumbling lumberjack of a belch.

It would take too long to get past the clients and out the door, and the bathroom was taken. I did the only thing I could do. I quietly got out of my chair, walked to one of the attorneys office's, opened the door, stepped in and let loose a mighty belch. I stared at the attorney, red faced, waiting for his reaction.

The attorney just looked up from his work and said, "Feel free to fart too."

"No, it was just the belch," I stammered.

He nodded and went back to work and I quickly backed out of his office.

Overcoming Embarrassment

I was lucky. I had a great boss who never teased me about it. I was able to let the memory slip into the past. But sometimes embarrassing events stay with us, keeping us from moving forward.

If you have a humiliating moment that you can't seem to shake, here are few tips.

  1. Put it in the past. Concentrate on the moment. That event took place then, not now.
  2. Learn to laugh at yourself. I personally like to make stories that I share with others (as you can tell). If I can make others laugh, at least some good came out of the humbling moment.
  3. Get back on the horse. Don't let one situation stop you from doing something. Once you've repeated the same action with different consequences, you have new memories to replace the old.
  4. Listen to other stories. You've heard the expression that there's safety in numbers. Well, there is also sanity in sharing. Finding your part of the "I can't believe that happened to me club," and not going it alone helps.
  5. Own it. You are who you are—and you're great.

Don't Make it Worse

If you're the witness to the embarrassing event, be kind. The person who just had a mortifying experience is vulnerable. Please don't make the situation worse. Simple comments can be destructive.

Life's full of embarrassing moments that we all have to grin and bear. I'm just hoping my next moment isn't captured on film. 

Diane Mettler has been a manager for nearly 20 years. She's also a freelance writer and editor—with hundreds of her articles published in a variety of magazines—and teaches writing at the University of Washington.