by Keri Forbess-McCorquodale, MS, LPC, LMFT, CEAP
Uh-oh. Big mistake. Really big mistake. And at work, of all places! Now what? Do you try to hide it and hope no one discovers it? Do you deny it if you are confronted? Aauugghh! Panic mode engaged!!
Remember that time your co-worker accidentally sent out that salary information to everyone in the organization? Or how about the time your company got audited and you had let some things slip through the cracks over time? Or maybe your staff did not handle something correctly, but you are the one who got called in for a “discussion” about it?
Some of you are cringing as you read this. You remember all too well that time you really messed up at work. I can think of a few times I have done the same. Calm down. Everyone messes up. It’s not fun, but it is survivable.
Now what? Will you be fired? Is your career over? Interestingly, that all depends on the culture of your organization and the temperament of those above you on the organizational chart. Those factors will determine what happens to you more than the mistake itself. But, there are some things you can do to give yourself the best chance possible:
Own it. Tell your boss what has happened before he/she finds out some other way, and as soon as you discover it. Your honesty will be viewed positively, and you will be viewed as more trustworthy. As we all know, covering up is just as much a problem as the mistake itself.
Make amends. The words, “I’m sorry,” are going to need to come out of your mouth a lot, so get ready. You need to apologize to all those impacted, and do so as personally as possible. This means in person is your first choice, then by phone if in person is not an option, or lastly via written word (email, text, etc). Those affected need to feel your genuine remorse.
For many people, this is the most difficult step. A lot of people choke on the words “I’m sorry.” Not you, though. You understand that an apology will increase the likelihood of getting things moving in the right direction. When you apologize, keep it direct and short. No casual chatting, and absolutely no excuses. “I am here to apologize to you for something that has happened . . .” is a good starting point.
Learn from it. When you tell your boss about the mistake, have the situation figured out. Know how it happened and what you will do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If you don’t put a plan or system in place to prevent it in the future, you are going to find yourself in the same exact situation down the road. And others will lose patience with you if you keep repeating the same mistakes.
Take a look at yourself. What was going on that you made the mistake? Were you distracted for some reason? Were you trying to cut corners because you were behind? Were you attempting to do something beyond your skill set?
As you do the analysis, think about what you can do about it. Do you need more training? Do you need to research how to manage time better? Do you need to go to counseling to deal with the distracting things? Many times, mistakes at work are a wakeup call that your life needs to be restructured in some way.
Accept the consequences. If you plan to keep working for the organization, you need to deal with the consequences given to you. Maybe you won’t get that bonus or promotion, but the way you handle the meeting where you are informed of what is going to happen will tell your boss a lot about you. No whining. Not too much groveling either. “I’m not happy about this, but I understand. I will do whatever is necessary to earn back your confidence in me” is the kind of tone you need to take.
After that meeting, get busy getting things on track. Put your new systems in place. Get a mentor if that would be helpful. Seek feedback from others. Be sure to document your improvements so you can prove you are the person for the job!
Of course, there is no guarantee the items listed above will work. Hopefully the “Powers That Be” will view your mistake as a learning opportunity and have mercy on you. They are more likely to do so if you have been a good employee who generally does a good job. If, no matter what you do, you cannot seem to please those in power, it really may be time to move on to a new organization where mistakes are not viewed as the end of the world.