13 Awkward Situations at Work and How to Deal with Them (Head On)

Have you ever found yourself in an awkward situation at work?

We all have, whether it’s what to say when your colleague beats you out for a promotion or dealing with a smelly co-worker.

When LinkedIn Learning asked my partner Elizabeth Lotardo and me to create the course:  Navigating Awkward Situations at Work, we polled our clients to find the most cringe worthy moments.

We identified 13 horribly awkward situations.  Acting these out for the video course was both hilarious and excruciating. Which of these have you faced?

Once we identified the challenging situations, we searched for the most gracious and effective approaches.  We surveyed experts, we asked clients and friends, and quite candidly, we dredged up some of our own cringe worthy moments and asked ourselves, what did we wish we’d done differently?  Here’s what we found:

  1. Someone beats you out for a promotion
  2. You beat someone else out for a promotion
  3. Your boss is making a mistake
  4. Someone else took credit for your work
  5. Your boss is disrespectful
  6. Office gossip
  7. Caught in a lie
  8. Oversharing colleagues
  9. Someone dies
  10. Breakups
  11. Office romances
  12. Personal appearance and hygiene problems
  13. Generational gaps

Avoiding awkwardness makes it more awkward.

Dodging your coworker whose mother died because you’re not sure what to say only makes things more uncomfortable.  Addressing issues head on, with empathy and openness is the best approach.  No matter what the situation – be it death, illness or someone stealing your idea – it clears the air.  In the case of a death, we role-played  scenario demonstrating how to show empathy without intrusion..  For stealing ideas, we recommend calm confidence, and being curious before casting blame.

Practicing your words in advance is critical.

How many times do you find the perfect response after the moment is over?  If you know you and a colleague are both up for a promotion, practice your response in advance.  You should know exactly what you’ll say if you get it, and what you’ll say if they get it.  For these scenarios, I had the fun of replaying what I wish I’d said when I got passed over early in my career.  Full disclosure, I sulked.  What I should have said, and later, finally did say, was, “Congratulations, let me know how I can support you in your new role.” We also reenacted Elizabeth’s response when she was chosen for leadership over her peer, “I’m sure it was a tough decision.  I hope I can count on your support.”

Step into the awkwardness and then move past it.

If you have to tell our coworker she smells, say it and move along.  Yes, that was actually a scenario we acted out for the course.  I played the smelly one, while Elizabeth acted as the gracious co-worker, saying, “It’s not bad, but I’d want you to tell me,” then offering baby wipes and leaving.  Other awkward moments include being asked out by a peer you don’t want to date and dealing with a co-worker who just got dumped.  You can check out course on LinkedIn Learning for the rest of the awkwardness.

Learning how to step into uncomfortable situations with confidence and grace helps you improve your relationships, and your career.

Life is awkward.  That doesn’t mean you have to be.