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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How One Karaoke Song Almost Cost Me My Career

I was young, insecure, shy, and drunk, and I knew nothing about being a professional. That as it turns out, is a toxic mix for doing karaoke at a company event.

This is a lesson in professionalism, making terrible mistakes at work, and how to recover from those mistakes. It’s also about really bad singing and booze.

OK, let’s start with a general rule of thumb: When 20 shots of Jagermeister are brought out for a group of 15 people, don’t be one of the five people willing to take a second shot. Gleefully being part of that group was the first mistake I made on that fateful night. The second was failing to understand that co-workers at a bar are, well, still your co-workers. And the third, and most painful, was forgetting I’d have to see these people the next morning.

Looking back, my mistakes were understandable, and probably ones that many people have made at some point in time. Finding your way in corporate America isn’t exactly easy, and as a kid who had just graduated college three weeks earlier, the nuances of office life weren’t yet part of my knowledge base. It’s not like someone handed me a manual on how to behave at a company happy hour (which, had they, I gladly would have read cover to cover).

So, there we were, me and 20 colleagues, including my manager, his boss, and the CEO of the company. Everyone drinking, singing karaoke, and seemingly unwinding after a long, stress-filled week. Given that I’m terribly shy and an even more terrible singer, I assumed I could hide and avoid having to get up on stage. But when my boss nudged me and said, “Everyone sings, including you,” I realized I wasn’t going to get out of this.

Though, in hindsight, outright refusing to sing would have been better than what I did next—which was quickly downing two shots and two more beers, then handing my song selection to the DJ.

If you want to know the song I sang, you can listen to it here (definitely NSFW), but general themes of the song include excessive cursing, sex, oral sex, and then more sex. I’m still not sure why the bar had it as an option. But I knew it well and thought it would make everyone laugh to hear me sing it.

It didn’t.

It was like watching people watch a car wreck and not being able to do a single thing about it. No one was laughing. In fact, everyone stopped smiling. I saw our CEO lean over and whisper something to my boss. When the song ended, I left the stage and only one co-worker said anything to me. He was drunk, and he laughingly said, “I’d update your resume.” It was then that I threw up.

As I quickly learned, there is a direct correlation between the level of your work screw-up and how many people at the company know about it. The more people who know, the worse it was. When I walked in the next day, the very first person I saw said, “Hey Elliott, heard you had quite the karaoke performance.” Considering she wasn’t there, I knew I was in trouble. Word had spread.

I put my head down and scurried to my desk, hoping no one would see me or talk to me. I already had a couple emails waiting for me from co-workers who asked if I’d sing again for them since they missed my epic performance. It was then that I decided the best thing to do would be to speak to my boss before he asked to speak to me.

I went to his desk, asked if he had a few minutes to chat, and quickly told him how sorry I was. I explained, as honestly as I could, that I was nervous, drank too much, and simply made a mistake in judgement. I assured him that it would not happen again, and that I hoped to continue working there for a long time.

To my surprise, he brushed it off and said I shouldn’t overthink it, but thanked me for saying something. Later that day, he stopped by my desk and said something I’ll never forget: “I’ll never tell you how close you were to getting fired. Just remember, you’re always an employee, you’re always representing your company, and you’re always representing yourself.” I’ve kept that lesson in mind ever since.

But, I also learned a more important one: Since then, I’ve screwed up plenty of times at work (though, thankfully, never on that drunken scale). It’s natural that at some point, you will do something you regret, like sending a bad email to the wrong person, forgetting a major project was due, or stepping over the line at office happy hour like I did. And while I learned it the hard way, I now know that when you do mess up, it’s crucial to own up to it. Be honest, be apologetic, and be sincere. And then move on and be the best employee you can be moving forward.

Oh, and don’t take Jager shots with your co-workers. Nothing good can come from that.

Photo of microphone courtesy of Shutterstock.