I Thought I Was On Mute! Now What?

Question: I was on a Skype departmental call and didn’t realize it was unmuted. I was under pressure to get a lot done before the Christmas break. I swore at a message I was reading (I said shut the eff up) and the manager speaking on the call thought it was directed to him. He asked who said that? I felt so embarrassed and so in fear that I kept silent. I planned to tell him the next day but he was telling the story to others. He told a co-worker that he wished the director was on the call. Definitely the comment was not directed at him.

It is a department of twenty-five and half were out on holiday. He told a coworker who asked him what he would do that he could do nothing as he does not know who said it.

I am the type who has owned up to any mistake but I feel afraid this time, because since my former manager left, I feel that I’m barely holding on, mostly because I do good work. I will be seeing him tomorrow. What should I do?

Answer: I’m sorry you’ve had such a stressful time. Those dratted “mute” and “unmute” moments have created a lot of problems for people in every kind of business. The fact that it happens often is in your favor, because everyone (including your boss) knows of someone who has had a similar situation occur. I’m going to offer some suggestions that I think will be helpful. Then, I hope you will sleep tonight, having confidence that you can deal with this tomorrow.

As you undoubtedly realize, you really have no choice but to come forward and acknowledge what happened. If you don’t, someone who figures it out will tell someone who will tell someone else and soon your manager will ask you about it.  You know you wouldn’t be able to lie. Besides—-and this may be hard to believe right now—that knot in your stomach will ease up the minute you apologize for your mistake. The outcome will depend upon a lot of factors, but if you work in a generally normal workplace, it is very likely that you can get through this better than you expect.

1. If you have an HR department that assists employees and management with workplace matters, start there. Call HR or go to that office if you are working on-site, tell them what happened and ask them what you should do next. Document your call to them with an email immediately following the call, thanking them for their assistance and repeating what they suggested you do.

They may tell you they’ll get back to you after they talk to the manager on the call. Or, they tell you to go to him directly. The value of talking to HR, even if they say they have no role in it, is that you show how serious you consider the matter. If they advise you to go to the person who was speaking, tell them you’d like to talk to your own manager first and explain that you want to use the correct chain of organization, but will certainly apologize to the person on the call.

I especially would recommend starting with HR if your manager was not on the call and doesn’t realize there was a problem.

2. You may decide to talk to your manager and not HR. I see that you felt better about the manager who hired you than you do about your current manager. Unless he just became your manager a few months ago, he isn’t your “new” manager, he is just your manager—and has an important role in your work.  You say you have kept your job through good work. That’s a great thing to be able to say. No one wants to lose a good employee unless he or she has done something criminal or so severe there is no option.

3. When you admit it was you who said “shut the eff up” (or if you said the actual f**k word), explain that you were frustrated about an email you glanced at while listening to the manager speak. You don’t need to say what the email was about, but I think you should be prepared to say what email it was, if you are asked. If you didn’t really have an email, but were actually saying it to the manager who was speaking, you might as well admit it, because they probably WILL ask you what email caused you to be so upset. Have a hard copy of it or forward the copy and explain why it frustrated you. If they don’t ask you, don’t show them. But, I think they might.

When you apologize, heavily make the point that you are sorry you said it, even about an email, because you don’t feel that way in your heart about anything in your job. Then you can say you especially don’t want the speaker on the call to think you were referring to what he was saying, because you agreed with him and thought his remarks about Christmas and Covid were good. Then, say you will do whatever you are asked to do to make it right. You can apologize to the speaker and to everyone on the call or accept a reprimand in your files or whatever else seems appropriate.

4. Here is an example, although I know it will not be in your words:
“Mike, I’ve been wanting to tell you this for two weeks: I’m the one who said “Shut the eff up” on the Skype call with Mr. Anderson, but I swear to you, it wasn’t directed at him or anything he said, it was about a frustrating email I looked at when he was talking. I want to apologize to Mr. Anderson and to everyone else and be held responsible for what I did. What should I do next to make it right?”

Then just stop talking and wait. He will probably ask you more about it, which is when you can say you know you shouldn’t have even let an email affect you in that way. You may also be able to say that anyone who interacts with you knows that you aren’t a negative person and wouldn’t have said such a thing about that Skype call. (I hope that is the case!)

5. You may only get as far as, “I’m the one who said…etc.” If he interrupts and questions you, look for the chance to say the last part, about you know you were wrong to blurt it out for any reason and you’ll do anything you can to apologize and be held responsible for it.

6. There is no way of knowing what the ultimate action will be, but at least you will have been honest. Most managers will react much more positively to that than to the employee that continues to lay low, hoping it will go away. It won’t go away until you get out in the open and let them decide about it.

Let me say this, to give you something to feel calmer about: There are often times in our lives when we would love to take something back. Look at how many celebrities and politicians have had to apologize for something they said or wrote. In your case, this is particularly significant because you don’t feel you have a strong relationship with your manager. But managers are not just there to observe, correct, push or critique, they are also there to coach and counsel. And my experience has been—over and over and over again—that when an employee asks a manager to help them make things right, the coaching and counseling side comes out. The manager might be angry or sound hostile, but they quite often rise to the occasion better than the employee ever expects. I think it has something to do with the Prodigal Son concept: When someone humbles themself, apologizes and ask how to make things right again, most of us are more inclined to give them some support.

So, decide who you want to talk to first—HR or your manager, but say about the same thing to either of them. If other employees ask you about it, say you can’t discuss it.  Then, stay in contact with your manager about it. Use this as a time to strengthen your role in the chain of work. In many ways, your path tomorrow is a special one. Think of it as a time to show what kind of person you are and what kind of employee you can be. Most of us never get to show real courage, but you will. When this is over, you will feel good about yourself.

I hope you can sleep well tonight and be fresh and strong tomorrow.  Then, if you have the time and wish to do so, let me know what happens and what is next.

Best wishes to you. You’re not alone! I’ll be thinking of you all day.

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Follow-Up:

Hi Tina,

I told my manager that I was the person who made the gaffe during the conference call. He interrupted right away and said you can say that to my face you know if you ever want to tell me to shut the eff up again (in a part joking manner).  He said that once he cooled down and thought about it, he asked himself what is he upset about when he uses that word and if he punished me for using it, HE wouldn’t be able to say it (he doesn’t swear in meetings).

He said that the problem with virtual meetings is that people don’t want to attend and everyone multitasks. He seems to believe or tried to get me to admit that my comment was directed at  him because I didn’t want to be on the call. I stressed that it was not directed at him. I asked what I needed to do to make it right and he said “nothing, we’re good. You stepped up.”  He would like to let the matter die down.  He mentioned my good work. 

I did not speak as gracefully as your example because I was nervous but I got through it and I do feel better.

Thank you very much!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.