Technology has made it easier than ever to communicate with colleagues and customers from all over the world. It's also made it easier than ever to make ourselves look very, very stupid.
Thanks to modern electronics, all it takes is a single split-second slip-up for an embarrassing error to be broadcast globally. No matter how hard you try, that kind of error can never be taken back.
These seven tales show just how humiliating one little lapse can be. Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty, but the stories themselves are all too real.
Stupid user trick No. 1: Who has the fuzzy bottom?
Conference calls can be both an indispensable business tool and a virtual booby trap for embarrassing moments.
Just ask Lauren, a reporter at a major tech publication. Lauren found herself on a conference call with IBM one fine day -- a dull briefing with about 50 other reporters from around the globe. The call dragged on and on, and with each passing minute, Lauren found herself drifting off more and more.
Much to Lauren's pleasure, her dog walked into the room and provided a much-needed distraction. The dog wanted her backside rubbed -- and Lauren was more than happy to oblige.
Lauren recalls, "I rubbed her hind legs and said in a silly voice, 'Fuzzy bottom! Fuzzy bottom!'" It didn't stop there. "The more I said it, the more excited she got, so I continued to say it -- until I realized that the call had gone silent."
You guessed it: Lauren had forgotten to mute her line. The execs from IBM and all the other reporters heard her excitedly saying "fuzzy bottom" over and over without any context as to what was actually going on.
"The operator came on and said, 'Obviously, the listen-only mode isn't working,'" Lauren confesses.
Lauren did what any sane professional would do in that situation: stayed dead-quiet and thanked her good graces she'd been using a silly voice no one could possibly recognize.
The moral: Always -- always -- double-check that you've muted a microphone, whether you're on a conference call or wired for an in-person presentation. If you somehow slip up and say something mortifying, follow the unspoken rule of public gas-passing: Shut up and act as surprised as everyone else. They'll never know it was you.
Stupid user trick No. 2: I'm too sexy for this post
Ah, Facebook: Has there ever been a more unusual tool for business professionals? We use it to share important info and interact with clients -- and to post personal photos and anecdotes for our friends.
OK, maybe not all of us, but certainly some of us, especially the 20-something newbies many companies task with social media work. That can be a recipe for disaster -- as Sam, a marketing manager at a small online retail establishment, discovered firsthand.
Sam had a recent college grad on his staff who was hired to manage the company's social media presence. The new hire knew the Internet in and out and was adept at crafting creative posts that got folks engaged.
One day, though, just after returning from vacation, she posted something that turned out to be a little too engaging. Sam signed into Facebook and saw a photo of the young woman and her friends on the beach, in skimpy bikinis, holding alcoholic drinks and making what we might call inappropriate gestures with some nearby guys.
"I was in a meeting and didn't see the photo until it'd been online for nearly two hours," Sam explains. "It had around 60 likes -- far more than we ever get on any of our normal company posts."
As you can imagine, the staffer had meant to post the picture to her personal Facebook account and somehow didn't realize she was sending it to the company page. The photo got deleted, the employee was reprimanded, and the incident never came up again.
"I'll admit, we did get a few extra followers that day," Sam laughs. "But once we got back to our usual G-rated posts, I don't think they stuck around for long."
The moral: In our strange new world of public personal lives, we -- and our employees -- must take extra care to be sure we're posting in the right places and with the appropriate permissions. As we've seen countless times now, one errant post or tweet is all it takes to damage a company's reputation and potentially cost people their jobs.
Stupid user trick No. 3: Email, e-fail
You don't need a social network to embarrass yourself electronically; good old-fashioned email can get the job done just as well.
Meredith Baker is familiar with the danger. Back in her mid-20s, Baker was working as a project coordinator for a human resources company.
Baker and her co-workers regularly chatted and gossiped over email, so it was business as usual when she fired off a rambling message to her friend Sarah about some random topics: a guy she was interested in who wouldn't give her the time of day, for instance, and a zany party she was thinking about attending. Unfortunately, she made one teensy-weensy mistake when addressing the message.
"I typed 'Sarah,' and what should have popped up as Sarah's email did not," Baker remembers. "Turns out my long, non-professional email went to 300 potential clients."
As tends to happen with these matters, Baker didn't notice her error until it was far too late. Thankfully, the folks who got the message seemed largely amused. One person wrote back and told her the guy who was ignoring her sounded like a loser. Another ended up contacting her manager because -- get this -- he wanted to sign up for her company's services.
"I guess you could say I gained the company a client the non-contemporary way!" Baker says.
The moral: Email software is great at guessing the name you have in mind -- until it isn't. Always give your To field a second glance before clicking Send. Some stories don't end as well as this one did.
Stupid user trick No. 4: Reply regret
Emails with multiple recipients can get tricky -- especially when some of the recipients are listed as cc's or bcc's.
Karen Swim has become an expert on the matter. Swim, a marketing and PR professional at Words for Hire, has a form on her company's website that visitors can fill out to get in touch. Queries come in addressed to her and two other colleagues.
Not long ago, Swim got an email from a vendor who was pitching an idea. It was late in the week and she was running low on steam.
"I did not have the energy for a 'thanks but no thanks' response, so I replied that I was going to basically blow it off -- thinking I was only responding to our internal teams," she says.
Sure enough, the response ended up going to the vendor instead of her colleagues. Whoops. The guy responded a few minutes later saying he didn't understand and asking if he had missed something.
"I was mortified and had to backtrack with a lame excuse, an apology, and a much nicer rejection!" she says.
The moral: Don't fall into the wrong-reply trap. When you're dealing with an existing thread, treat replies or forwards with extreme caution -- lest you end up sending a snarky remark to the wrong party.
Stupid user trick No. 5: The filter falter
Filters are powerful tools -- and like any powerful tool, they can backfire easily.
Sam Jackson learned that the hard way. Jackson, a marketing coordinator at Mojo Motors, helped set up a profanity filter for his company's website some years back. If you tried to sign in to the site with a name that contained a blacklisted word, the site would deliver a playful response and ask for your real name.
The system worked great -- until the day a certain prospective customer tried to sign in. Her real last name, as it turned out, also happened to be an old-fashioned racial slur.
"Each time she tried to sign in, her attempt was blocked and she saw a message indicating that she could not register," Jackson recalls.
In fact, the woman saw some of these messages:
"Watch your language, sailor! Enter your real name."
"Do you need toilet paper for that potty mouth?"
"Wow -- with that name, your parents must really hate you!"
Needless to say, the woman was not amused. She fired off an angry email to Jackson's staff and promised never to do business with them again. The company did its best to apologize, but the damage was already done.
"She got really offended," Jackson says. "It was an eye-opener for us."
The moral: Being witty and playful can work well in certain circumstances, but there's a fine line between fun and offensive. If you're going to toe that line, make sure you do it carefully and with proper precautions in place.
Stupid user trick No. 6: Attached to failure
Paper résumés are quickly becoming a remnant of the past. While digital attachments may be quicker and easier to send, they also pose their own sets of risks.
JR Rodrigues, founder of an accessory distributor called NetCablesPlus, watched as a colleague discovered how it can all go wrong. The colleague was looking for a new position in network management and spent a day sending her credentials to prospective employers. Given her qualifications, she was surprised when two weeks went by without a single word back from any of them.
"She began to have doubts about her résumé and her potential marketability," Rodrigues says.
Finally, the woman received a rejection letter from one of the companies. It was standard boilerplate fare -- except for one crucial note at the end:
"P.S. Thank you for attaching the Red Sox 2014 game schedule. I hope that they go all the way again this year!"
There you have it: The woman accidentally attached a baseball schedule to her emails instead of her résumé. Steeeerike!
The moral: Never send an email without making sure you (a) remembered to attached a file -- and (b) attached the right file. A baseball schedule is bad enough; imagine if it had been something worse.
Stupid user trick No. 7: Boyfriend, boss -- whatever
Smartphones have transformed the way we work while traveling for business. Part of that transformation, however, includes opening the door to new kinds of embarrassing blunders.
A graphic designer we'll call Katie was attending an out-of-state convention last fall. Her boss asked her to keep in touch and check in via text a few times a day to let him know how things were going.
Easy enough, right? You'd think -- but Katie was also texting with her boyfriend on and off during her days away. As luck would have it, she managed to get her threads mixed up and send something intended for her boyfriend to her boss.
"Amazingly, it wasn't anything too intimate," she laughs. "But it was still humiliating."
As best as Katie can remember, the text said something about missing him so much and looking forward to being in his arms again soon. She's pretty sure there was at least one utterance of "baby," too, along with something about feeling his skin pressed against hers.
"I figured out what had happened when my boss sent me a text back and said, 'I think this might been meant for someone else.' I was so relieved that he never mentioned it again!" she says.
The moral: Text with care. In our world of instant communication, there are no take-backs. Even if your boss or colleague is kind enough to keep quiet around you, you can be sure he'll be telling the tale of your misstep for years to come.