4 tips for handling conference call gaffes

Recovering from a public error takes a bit of humour and humility.
4 tips for handling conference call gaffes

With COVID-19 pushing many people into telecommuting, some for the first time, missteps are bound to happen. Whether it’s having restless children home because of school closures or having to work in living spaces not suitable for telecommuting, life will likely intrude on work. And as more and more work gets done with far-flung colleagues using technology tools like Skype, Zoom, and others, the chances increase that a gaffe will occur in full view or hearing of others.

But beyond technology hiccups and that one person who is always five minutes late into the call leaving everyone else to make small talk, a conference call gaffe, whether it’s an uncomfortable interruption or making negative comments about a co-worker on an unmuted phone, needs to be acknowledged and dealt with immediately.

“That’s the human side of business,” said Barbara Pachter, author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success. “It’s just funny and can help build a bond.”

Here’s what you can do when things go awry:

Laugh, if it’s appropriate. Because often conference call interruptions are funny: the pet who jumps onto your lap, the kid who demands something from Mummy or Daddy right now, the unaware neighbour who knocks on the door. In some cases, said Michael S.W. Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing at the University of Auckland, these incidents “can be used effectively to build authenticity, rapport, and relatability”.

He cites a famous TV gaffe when Robert Kelly, Ph.D., professor of political science at Pusan National University, was being interviewed by the BBC and his daughter playfully stomped in — followed by his son and then wife trying to rein them back in. He wasn’t criticised, but the video went viral, in a heart-warming way.

“That actually made the expert more relatable, he got more airtime for the gaffe, and we are still talking about it now,” Lee said. That doesn’t mean you should try to plan these kinds of oopses, “as that would violate the principle of authenticity”.

Learn from what happened, and be prepared the next time. There’s no reason to hide that you’re making a call from home. So let the other attendees know what might happen during the call, whether it’s the doorbell ring from the delivery that comes at 3pm every day or a pet who might bark at the bell. Pachter, for example, makes sure she never schedules conference calls on the day her landscapers come, so she doesn’t have to explain away or hide the noise.

Besides, almost everybody understands that things happen, like that a kid doesn’t feel well and a parent needs to work from home. “Explain it right upfront — ‘I didn’t want to cancel, but I have a sick kid at home’,” Pachter said.

Apologise. Nick Morgan heard a lot of conference call horror stories while researching his book Can You Hear Me? How to Connect With People in a Virtual World, often around people forgetting to mute their phones when they decided they had better things to do than give 100% attention to the call.

Sometimes people can also make jokes that might have landed in person but, without the context of body language, come off as rude, off-colour, or downright offensive over the phone. “Even the most offensive humour can be softened with the way in which it’s delivered. You can roll your eyes or you can wink or you can nod or you can smile. None of that comes through on a conference call,” Morgan said. Attendees don’t have as much context to know that you may not be a bad person overall either. “In a virtual setting, the human connection is weaker because you haven’t exchanged all the nonverbal signs that say, ‘This is a nice person’ or ‘This is a reasonable person,’” he said.

The solution: apologise — and not in a mealy-mouthed way. Make a “fully and complete and total apology immediately, and then bend over backward to re-establish your trail of humanity”, Morgan said. Follow up with a written apology, either by email or a letter in the mail.

You might need to let your superiors know about the incident, too, especially if that bad thing happened with an important client who could be offended enough to take their business elsewhere. Again, being upfront, honest, and fully apologetic is the only thing you can do in the wake of that kind of mistake.

And skip anything but the mildest jokes the next time. It’s not worth the risk.

Reschedule. Because, again, things happen. Your car breaks down, the technology doesn’t work, or you just plain forget. This is another case where everybody has been there. So apologise — giving the true reason why, not something that might sound more acceptable than “I messed up the differences in our time zones” and ask to reschedule (and if you did miss the call because you made a mistake about the differences in time zones, make sure to do a diary invite the next time, and bookmark

Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at