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the hangover, the French onion soup, and other stories to cringe over — Ask a Manager

It’s Mortification Week at Ask a Manager and all week long we’ll be revisiting ways we’ve mortified ourselves at work. Here are 13 mortifying stories to kick off today.

1. The hangover

The company I worked for had an annual 3 day “retreat” 4 hours out of the city. On the second night I drank A LOT (I was trying to unwind after a lot of personal and work drama in the previous 12 months). The next morning I was very unwell but had to get on the bus for day 3’s activities. The bus had to stop multiple times all morning so I could be sick. I stayed on the bus instead of going to the big lunch. I huddled in the corner during the 4-hour journey home. I was too unwell (and young and arrogant) to be embarrassed at the time, but I cringe so much looking back.

2. The French onion soup

I had just been promoted and my new boss invited me to lunch to discuss the job and any suggestions I might have. Having been a faceless drone for most of my short career, I was beyond excited and desperate to make a good impression. Above all, I wanted to order something tidy and easy to eat so that I could spend the lunch hour being insightful, witty, and bristling with helpful contributions. I ordered french onion soup. While channeling the business version of Dorothy Parker/Oscar Wilde, I quickly swallowed a spoonful of soup and discovered to my horror that the glob of rubbery cheese now nestled in my stomach, was attached via a rope of the stuff to the glob still in the soup bowl. While gagging and choking, I bit and gnashed at the rope like a demented shark, hoping I could finally swallow it and be free. A memorable first impression.

3. The nerds

I was at an in-person interview for a coordinator-type job at a science-focused think tank, feeling quite confident, and the interviewer said “The people you’d be working with are very focused on lab work; this team tends to be pretty introverted and quiet. How do you feel about working with a team like that?”

What I planned to convey: “These are my people! I was one of the ‘nerdy kids’ growing up, I’m fairly introverted myself, and I relate well to other introverts. I enjoy people who are really passionate about a topic– that describes me and most of my friends. I think I’d fit right in with this team.”

What I actually said: “Oh, I have a lot of experience with nerds!”

I did not hear back from that job.

4. The paper gown

I had a workplace injury and had to go in for an MRI of my ankle. While I was waiting I was texting both my BFF and my boss about different things. Once I got called in I was given a very unflattering paper gown that didn’t even go close to covering my ample bottom so I took a mirror selfie with my very low lower back (no cleft showing but there were mere millimeters to spare) with all my back tattoos on show, and sent it to my BFF with the caption “you would think in 2023 we would have something better than paper gowns that would barely fit a toddler” … you know where this is going.

I sent it as a reply to what I thought was the last text from my BFF but I inadvertently sent it to my boss. Within what seemed like nanoseconds my phone rings and when I answer it is just my boss laughing his butt off at my expense. He tells me that he is adding my spectacular fail to the next company newsletter and may even pop it on the big screen in the foyer that shows all out company achievements. He thought it was the funniest thing ever.

Thankfully I have a really good relationship with my boss and we got a good laugh about it. He did bring it up in our team meeting and we all shared a laugh at my expense but it was a heart stopping moment there between hitting send and him calling when I realized what I had done!

5. The indelicate question

First real job on the oil rigs, one of my colleagues came into the mess after having talking on the satellite phone and announced to everyone that his wife was pregnant, I burst out with “Oh no! Was it planned?!”

6. The culture divide

I was a Brit new in the states. I was gathering stationery and asked my boss very loudly several times for a rubber. His face turned progressively red before he spluttered “what!?!?” … and then I realised. We never spoke of it again, and I quickly learned the correct US terms!

7. The flowers

I was working for an insurance company and travelled a lot for my marketing job. I returned to the office from a business trip and as I was walking toward my cubicle, I felt like my co-workers were looking at me strangely. As I entered my cubicle which was directly across from the kitchen and therefore, a high traffic area, I saw a beautiful bouquet of flowers topped off with plastic handcuffs. They were from a guy I had recently started dating and he thought it would be hilarious to send flowers with handcuffs even though we hadn’t done more than kiss.
Adding to my mortification, I learned the flowers had been delivered a few days before. I then had to deal with a parade of colleagues (even those from other floors) dropping by my cubicle to discuss “important” work matters. The more I tried to explain that this was just a bad joke from a soon to be ex-boyfriend, the worse it made it appear. I finally gave up and just tried to awkwardly laugh it off.

Despite my embarrassment, a tradition was born that anytime someone received flowers, the plastic handcuffs would be added to the arrangement. The person would keep the handcuffs until the next floral delivery. Years after I left the company, I met someone new who worked in my former department and for whatever reason, she mentioned the handcuffs in flowers tradition. I just smiled mysteriously and took pride in my legacy.

The guy who sent the flowers worked for a nonprofit with a very relaxed environment and could not understand why I was so bothered by this. I broke up with him for this and other reasons. 🙂

8. The wrong reference

Many years ago, I worked at a video rental store.

High School Me thought my manager was one of the coolest people ever, so I constantly emulated her interactions with clients, such as saying “Put your John Hancock here” when asking a customer to sign for the video rental.

Until the evening I got confused and said “Put your John Holmes here” to the gentleman who was checking out some X-rated videos.

I laugh about it now, but whoooooeeee.

(For people of the wrong age to know who John Holmes is: a very famously well-endowed porn star of the 1970s.)

9. The stolen plant

My office had the designated cookie spot — where people would leave cookies or candy to share with the office. It was on a file cabinet behind someone’s desk, i.e., sort of vaguely in her workspace, but it was a spot everyone walked past, so that was the designated spot. One day there was a lovely plant there and I was like, sweet, free plant! So I took it. Come to find out, it was not “up for grabs.” It was her plant. Someone else had to walk over to my desk and let me know that I had straight up stolen her plant. I still feel mortified ~10 years later.

10. The buttons

Early in my career, I (female) was trying to be cool and constantly engaged in banter with a male employee. We were on good terms actually and no personal involvement, but talked some smack that bordered on suggestive and inappropriate looking back. One day, he said something – probably about me dating – and I countered, then leaned back in my chair. As I did the pearl buttons on my blouse escaped thru their openings. It was like time slowed to a crawl and we both watched it happen like dominos in a chain falling: pop, pop, pop leaving me exposed to the waist.

His eyes got big; his face got red. I quickly rebuttoned. He hurried away and we never mentioned it.

11. The laughter

At a prior job, part of my job was helping customers at our service desk. They would come in to pick up their serviced items, and I would read off the repair notes to let them know what the technician had done. I was doing this for a customer and it went sort of like, “Ok, so he straightened the rod, lubricated the chain, fixed the nipple…” Fixing the nipple was a standard part of maintenance for the item in question and I must have read that statement hundreds of times before but this time I snickered. And made the mistake of making eye contact with my coworker at the desk, and they snickered. And then I just couldn’t get myself under control. I tried to finish the transaction and snickering turned into laughing which turned into crying laughing and this poor customer just wanted to pay and leave and I just wanted to be able to stop but I was literally incapable of doing so.

My coworker fled the desk area, also laughing. By the end of the transaction I was literally holding my stomach with tears streaming down my face and once the customer finally left I just brayed laughter. It never happened again, but that one day, it got me.

12. The interview

Picture it: I’m 17ish. I want to get a job to save money for my vacation with my besties. The H&M in town is hiring, and I get an interview.

Things look promising, until the interviewer asks, “What is your favorite thing about H&M?” Young, clueless, painfully honest me: “That literally everyone can afford the cheap-ass stuff you sold here!”

Against all odds, I got the job, but 18 years later I still cringe thinking of my answer.

13. The Christmas card

I told my boss that his Christmas card design looked like a festive buttplug. (IT DID.)


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