You Just Put Your Foot in Your Mouth and Offended a Coworker

How to Mend Your Relationship With an Insulted Colleague

Coworkers talking
An apology can keep your relationship with a coworker from falling apart. Jon Feingersh / Blend Images / Getty Images

Wouldn't it be great if you could take back something you said as soon as you realized it offended someone? Imagine if you had something like the delete button on a computer keyboard but instead of erasing words you just typed, you could erase words you said. Unfortunately there isn't such a tool. When you put your foot in your mouth and offend someone, for example a coworker, there is nothing you can do to make your words disappear.

Most of us realize the importance of maintaining good workplace relationships and don't say things with the intention of offending our coworkers. Usually we simply don't realize the effect our words will have until it's too late.  Sometimes we speak without taking the time to think carefully about what we are about to say because we are busy thinking about or doing other things. Often, though, we do think about what we are going to say but don't think that it will be offensive. It happens to everyone and it has probably happened to you.

Maybe you said something in jest that a coworker didn't think was funny, brought up a topic that was inappropriate for the workplace or criticized his work too harshly. Only when you see the expression on his face, do you realize you've insulted him. As much as you want to take back your words, you can't.

What can you do? You have a couple of options. You can ignore what happened and hope your colleague will forgive and forget.

That might work but more likely you will continue to wonder if things are truly back to normal with your relationship. The other option—and the best way to move forward—is to deal with it immediately or as soon as you know there's a problem. Here are things you can do that will, hopefully, repair the problem or at least keep it from getting worse.

  • Say you're sorry. Apologize the moment you realize what happened. Even if all you can manage to do is utter "I'm sorry" that is much better than letting the words that offended your coworker hang in the air. The longer you wait, the worse things could get. Your coworker might think you don't care that she was offended. The most important thing is that you let her know you do, regardless of whether you agree that she should have been. This brings us to the next point.
  • Don't be defensive. You may not understand why your coworker has taken umbrage at what you said. For example, you may have told him a joke that was well received by other people, yet your office mate's face turned red when he heard it. Should the fact that other people didn't react the same way somehow negate his reaction? No it shouldn't. What matters is only that he was offended and that is what you must apologize for. All you need to say is "I'm sorry for telling a joke that offended you."
  • Let it go. After you offer your apology, move on. There is no need to dwell on what happened. Doing that will only continue to remind your coworker of your offense and there is no reason you would want to do that. Everyone makes mistakes so stop beating yourself up over it.
  • Give your offended coworker time. Your colleague may not be able to forgive you immediately and you must respect that. She will accept your apology whenever she's ready and there's nothing you can do about it.

After taking the appropriate measures, hopefully you are able to repair your relationship with your colleague. Then it's time to move on and get back to work.

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