It had been a rough week during one of my busiest seasons at work. Co-workers kept missing deadlines; we’d undergone two acquisitions; and I had to make constant changes to an important document I was preparing. The last thing I needed was an email from my male co-worker telling me how to do my job, and copying my boss and two other managers.
The colleague in question went into detail about changes in my files and deliverables to the investor relations department. Never mind that everything he ever-so-helpfully reminded me about was — you guessed it — already done. I pushed my chair back, took a deep breath to prepare for a rational conversation and… completely lost it.
I don’t remember what I said through my shaking voice and tears, but I know that the words “mansplaining,” “condescending” and “micromanaging” came up once or twice. And then I dramatically stormed off to finish crying in the bathroom. Not the best look, I know.
You might be surprised to hear that in spite of this incident (which I can definitely say was a personal career low), I didn’t get fired. Why not? Because I took the following steps to salvage the situation — and if you ever find yourself in a similar scenario, you should too.
Take time to cool off
Storming off wasn’t exactly the right move, but my instinct to walk away from the situation and give myself time to recover was. Trying to handle the situation before I’d regained control of myself would have been disastrous. If you have a bad moment similar to mine, take a quick walk around the block, go sit in your car and let it all out, or lock yourself in a bathroom stall to finish crying.
Elaine Swann, a teacher and speaker on business etiquette, says, “Sit back and breathe before opening your mouth.” It’s hard to censor yourself when you’re emotional and the next time you talk to your co-workers, you’re going to want to be ultra-professional and polite.
What if your supervisor or HR wants to address the situation right away? Even though you may think you need to be agree in order to keep your job, don’t be afraid to ask for time. Don’t walk into a conference room to talk to higher-ups or HR if you’re still upset. My boss and I waited two days to sit down and address the situation. It gave me time to think about what I wanted to say and how. Our meeting, while tense, still went better than it would have if I’d still been in meltdown mode.
Tell your supervisor if your personal life’s a mess
At the time my crash happened, I was going through a horrible, lengthy divorce. Legal bills had been mounting, arguments over the financial settlement seemed endless, and some days it felt like a Herculean effort to get out of bed — let alone put on pants. When you’re going through a hard time personally, it may become a struggle to keep the two worlds separate. As scary as it may feel to tell your supervisor what’s going on, I’d recommend it.
So would Lydia Ramsey, a professional speaker, consultant and trainer in business etiquette. When she got divorced, Ramsey told her supervisor and suggests saying something like, “There’s something I need to let you know in case I’m not acting like my usual self,” and follow up with a brief explanation. While I didn’t share anything too personal with my boss, in the weeks leading up to my bad day, I told him enough that he understood some of the underlying causes of my outburst, and I’m convinced it’s part of why I wasn’t reprimanded. It’s better to clue your boss in just in case than to have to explain after the fact.
Own your part & apologize
Was my co-worker out of line? Yes. My supervisor also spoke with him after the incident about talking to co-workers in person about issues like this and when it’s appropriate to CC higher-ups (and when it’s not). But I still responded in an overly emotional, unprofessional way, so an apology was in order.
You might be tempted to ignore the situation, hoping the awkwardness will just fade away. But that risks leading to hurt feelings, workplace gossip and a bad relationship with your co-worker. So swallow your pride, because a simple heartfelt apology won’t undermine your perceived authority on the job — and it could in fact help you keep that job. Ramsey cautions that you should apologize without casting blame, take responsibility for your part and — above all — be brief! “People tend to go on and on and make the situation worse,” she says, “Don’t over-apologize.”
Ask about the future
No, don’t ask, “Am I going to be fired?” Why put the idea in anyone’s head? But do include in your discussions language that implies you’ll still be in that job and at the company in the future. Ask what you can do to be part of the solution and talk about next steps as if you’ll still be there. “What can I do going forward?” is a great phrase. Most people are flattered to be asked for advice and will respond positively.
And then, actually do what they say! If your boss suggests more face-to-face communication instead of emails, make a point to leave your cube and talk to that co-worker who ticked you off — and make sure they see you putting their suggestions into action (as long as it’s in a natural way, not a showboat-y one).
Until the day that robots sit in our cubicles instead of humans, emotions will inevitably enter into the workplace. Given that our personal lives don’t always follow smooth, happy paths, it may not always be possible to maintain your cool at work. I hope you never have a day as bad as mine, but if you do, hopefully these steps will help you bounce back.