what to do when you make a mistake at work

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When you make a mistake at work, how you handle it can often say much more about you than the mistake itself.

Reasonable bosses understand that no one is perfect and mistakes will occasionally happen — what they care about is how you follow up on that mistake. As it happens, there’s a pretty foolproof formula for handling it well. If you follow this formula (and have a reasonable boss), you’ll likely be surprised at how well he or she responds.

Here’s the formula:

1. Tell your boss what happened — immediately. Do not put it off out of fear. I will be far more upset if time is allowed to pass before I’m informed. Delaying sends the message that you value your own comfort over the needs of your work.

2. Take responsibility for it. Don’t make excuses, and don’t be defensive.

3. Tell me how it happened. Not only do I want to know, I want to know that you know.

4. Most importantly, explain how you plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

This formula works because when someone makes a mistake, what a boss needs to do is make sure that the person understands the seriousness of it and knows how to avoid it in the future. If you take the initiative to cover those things yourself, then your boss doesn’t need to do it herself (and having your boss impress upon you how serious a mistake was tends to be much less pleasant than saying it yourself).

In other words, do your boss’ job for her — eliminate the need for her to reprimand you by reprimanding yourself.

Why don’t more people realize this?

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Evil HR Lady

    This is one of my key points in life–although surprisingly, I’ve never blogged about it.

    I make mistakes. You make mistakes. Your boss makes mistakes. Your underlings make mistakes.

    Fine. Just fix it and go on. Don’t try to blame other people. Own it, fix it and move on.

    Sometimes you have to fix things caused by other people. Tough. Fix it. It makes me think less highly of you when you blame other people, rather than just just fixing it.

  2. The Office Newb

    I think this touches on a larger issue: lack of accountability in the workplace.

    People sometimes get so focused on getting ahead, making it to the top that they see any mistake/failure as a much bigger deal than it really is.

    I tell my team all the time not to feel bad or guilty when they make a mistake since I, as the senior employee, have made the same exact mistakes before.

    The important thing, which you mention in point #4 is that you learn from the mistake and don’t repeat it again.

    This is the hallmark of success–not avoiding failure, but rather learning from it.

  3. Michael Moore

    Common sense, but very insightful. From a legal perspective, an employer is less likely to terminate the employment of someone who follows your advice. Not disclosing the mistake turns and error into misconduct.

  4. Uncle Joe

    Great post. It works both ways too. The supervisor should follow similar rules when we make a mistake if we want to retain qualitystaff.

    I really appreciate your blog.

  5. Happy Receptionist

    This happened to me- our office v-mail was down and i had to take messages for all 16 employees "by hand'meaning Write down quickly and then clarify for an email. Well i wrote it down but the phone rang again and i forgot to send our VP the message that his meeting in California? oh that was moved to New york now. (just an example but it night as wel have been that far.)
    When he called wondering where his client was i immeadiatly apologized over the phone and then wrote a short email saying that i was sorry. That i understood i wasted valuable time and it would never happen again.
    The VP came in the office, told me he got my email and that he was going to keep it between us. No fuss no muss Igot to keep my job!

  6. Bobby Adamson

    People are always going to make mistakes. Sometimes uncontrollable malfunctions can come down on your head! It's all about how you handle it, and owning up to them is the most respectable thing you can do. I actually wrote a post about it here, as well. Really great post though, it's nice to get it from the perspective of someone who has to make people accountable for their actions.

  7. Anonymous

    Boss can make mistakes because they are paying for it.
    Employees can make acceptable mistakes, because they are getting paid by the hourly.
    If an employee has to stay late for his mistakes has the boss does, and not getting paid , for shure is going to think again before making mistakes…
    You know what , people deserves what they get, they are not responsible for anything… they don't care, and they don't worry.
    If they lived in a poor country withoult food or water to drink, they will appreciate their job.
    John

  8. Riaz

    Admit that you have made a mistake before any one else finds about it and promise that you would be very careful in future. Seek help from people who are more experienced than you and let your supervisor know about their support. Most organizations would not take any action at the first occurance; however if mistakes are repeated in spite of training / orientation – be prepared to be fired from your job.

  9. Ann

    OMG I entered in time cards for a big corporation, (though at my facilitiy there are 90) and I forgot to enter in vacation time, personal day time..I am freaking out..I have to tell my boss on Tuesday..the day after Labor Day…and I am scared of getting fired! I’ve only been there for a month!

  10. Debra

    My coworker always make mistake and never admit to it. Kisses the bosses ass and gets away with it. So I just shut up and let all the mistake go and now the entire compay profile is mess up due to her. Still the boss says its only a mistake . So there, even if you complain it dose not get you any where. Once you are an out sider you will always be the outside no matter how you shine. Leave things alone and time will only tell. Thank you.

  11. Anonymous

    well this is completely useless to me. My boss has repeatedly told me that i shouldn’t be making any mistakes at all now that i’ve spent a month of paid employment here. If i do make a mistake, I will be insulted and possibly forced to pay money for it. So no, owning up to mistakes is not a good idea. Just hide it as best you can and pray to god that they dont find any.

      1. Anonymous

        Yeah, sorry, was grumpy. Not ideal advice, obviously. In reality I dont hide my mistakes, i just fix the ones that i find and if it affected anything, i’ll tell them. the ones that get found by my boss are ones i had no idea about, and regardless of how minor that may be (you got this one digit wrong, this one word shouldn’t be here, this remnant of an automated system has left something here and you need to fix it.) he will still repeatedly say that i shouldn’t be making any mistakes at all. As I said, i’m not an expert having only recently got my first pay. I dont see why he should be expecting perfection. And not ten minutes ago, he compared me to a child who can’t read… so while i shouldn’t be making mistakes, i wouldn’t say they handle it in the best of fashions.

      2. Anonymous

        again, sorry for being grumpy. On that day, i confirmed that they’d been repeatedly lying to me about certain paperwork. Sorry.

      3. JJ

        UHM YES.
        This is how my job is, you make a mistake, you are punished beyond all comprehension to the point of termination, or embarrassed until you quit, whether you admit to it or not. They love a high turnover rate to prevent people from making too much money or getting benefits. Sometimes jobs are crooked and there is nothing you can do about it. Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut and pray someone else takes the fall just to keep a steady paycheck coming in.

        So UHM YES.

  12. Poe

    Thank you for this. I read it back when it came out, but needed it today. I have just made a medium-large size mistake…for the second time in 2 months. I know it is hard to get fired here, but I am terrified.

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