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.