how do I recover from a huge, fireable mistake at work?

A reader writes:

Yesterday another coworker and I made a careless mistake that may have huge results. Among other things, our company may lose a contract because of our error. Our mistake was probably a fireable offense and certainly one that merits being written up. I think the only reason neither of those things has happened (yet…) is because we have both been stellar employees otherwise. I’ve made smaller mistakes here and there during my two years at this job (basically the ones everyone makes) but never one with such big consequences.

I had my annual review two weeks ago with my supervisor and it was nothing but praise and an unexpectedly large salary bump. Among other things, I was told that I’m very consistent and dependable. I’m devastated and disappointed in myself for proving otherwise. How can I recover from this mistake and make my supervisor think of me as a great employee again?

When I’m managing someone who makes a major mistake, here’s what I want to know:
* that they understand that the mistake was truly serious and what the impact could be
* how it happened, and that they understand how it happened (two different things)
* what steps they’re taking to ensure nothing similar happens again

If the person makes all of this clear on their own, there’s not a whole lot left for me to do. I don’t need to impress upon them the seriousness of the mistake (which is an unpleasant conversation) if they’ve already made it clear that they get that. I don’t need to put systems in place to prevent against it in the future if they’ve already taken care of it.

But if they don’t do those things themselves, then we need to talk through each of them — and I might be left even more alarmed that I needed to say it, that they didn’t realize it on their own.

So the thing to do here is to talk to your manager. Make it clear that you understand what a huge mistake this was, what the potential impact could be, and how serious the situation is. Say that you’re mortified that it happened. Explain — briefly, and not defensively — where you went wrong and what steps you’re taking to avoid it ever happening again.

Then see what your manager says. There’s a decent chance that you’re going to hear that while your manager obviously isn’t thrilled, people are humans and mistakes happen. (And the chances of hearing that go way up when you take the approach above.) Or, yes, you might hear that what happened was so serious that the above isn’t enough and your manager is still Highly Alarmed or — worst case scenario — even harboring real doubts about your fit for the role. But as unpleasant as that is, it’s still better to talk about that explicitly than not to have it surfaced.

As for how to recover from there, well, simply taking responsibility in this way is a big part of it. You also, of course, should be extra careful in your work going forward, find opportunities to do unusually fantastic work, and generally counteract any worries that the mistake might have created (e.g., that you’re careless or prone to poor judgment or whatever might be concluded from the mistake).

You’ve noted that you’ve been a stellar performer otherwise, so I think you’ll be able to do this. (Panicking will make it harder though, so to the extent that you can, try to put this behind you mentally. That’s easier said than done, I realize.)

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 122 comments… read them below }

  1. YourCdnFriend*

    Ugh. I feel for you but with Alison’s advice, I can tell you from personal experience that it can be overcome.

    I made a mistake once that cost us $10,000. I immediately notified my manager and talked through solutions with her. It was one of the first times when I didn’t already have a solution and I was honest about that. We found a solution together and I executed it. I was completely mortified and vocal about how I knew how bad the mistake was.

    We got through it and at the end of the year, I got a glowing review and a bonus.

    Obviously this is anecdotal but just know that people make mistakes and sometimes it’s not the end of the world. Good luck.

  2. Joey*

    It depends on how you made the mistake to me. If it was one simple error (like a data entry error) that’s a whole lot more understandable than a series of lapses that led to the mistake.

    1. Hephinstine*

      Also when you realized your mistake and whether you’ve already attempted to cover it up or not.

    2. AMG*

      I think this is key. Another aspect is whether it was the data error or puching someone in the break room. The nature of the mistake will tell how quickly and how well you recover.

      1. AVP*

        This…there’s a huge difference between a mistake that makes me question your work, and a mistake that makes me question your entire personality.

    3. PEBCAK*

      Agreed, and I’d add whether it was something that does or does not involve base unprofessionalism. For example, accidentally forwarding a client an email that was meant to remain internal vs. accidentally forwarding a client an email where you and a coworker made fun of her hair and bad shoes.

  3. BRR*

    In addition to everything above, if you’re anything like me when I make a mistake I need to make sure to not dwell too much on it. If I keep thinking about it and replaying it over and over and analyze my future work a million times the number of mistakes I make tends to snowball. Like I put myself into the mindset of people terrible at my work due to a previous mistake when it’s just a small part of the whole.

    1. Turanga Leela*

      This is absolutely right—don’t dwell, OP. We all make mistakes, sometimes with big consequences. You are still the same person who has done stellar work for two years. Have the conversation with your boss and see where you stand. After that, forgive yourself and move on with your work.

  4. LawBee*

    Been there! It sucks. Alison’s advice is spot-on, though. And having the conversation sooner rather than later will also alleviate the stress from worrying about what will happen – because you’ll know.

    And who knows, maybe your boss will come up with a way to smooth things over with the client and fix everything. Best of luck to you.

  5. Snork Maiden*

    I was going to ask for tips when it’s your manager doing the mistakes and not realizing or acknowledging the cause but then I figured out the answer here is “Your employer sucks and isn’t going to change.”

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Well, if you realize that there’s a consistent miss in the process that’s leading to the same mistake being made over and over, you can always raise that in the vein of “Hey, I noticed that it seems like we’re/you’re/Bob is forgetting to do X each week. That leads Y to happen. Would it be helpful if I reminded you/documented the system/whatever?”

    2. Traveler*

      You can always go to your manager and point out the mistakes, in a tactful way, keeping in mind the way you might want it pointed out to you. That is assuming you have an open enough relationship for that. I think we tend towards “isn’t going to change” because repeated mistakes are usually not done on accident. They’re usually a symptom of a large problem (problems with the organization, general devil may care attitudes, personal issues) and ultimately you have no way to reprimand someone above you – short of more dramatic measures that are rarely warranted (going over their heads by one or more rungs, outing them publicly, etc.).

  6. JMegan*

    Also, I think it has been implied here but not spelled out explicitly – go and talk to your manager first. Don’t wait for her to discover the mistake on her own, and don’t wait for her to ask you to come to her office to discuss it. Sketch out some quick thoughts on Alison’s suggestions above, then go and talk to your manager today.

    There are two reasons for this. One, because you really, really don’t want the manager to find out about it first (if she hasn’t already.) Most reasonable managers understand that people make mistakes, but they almost always want to hear it directly from the person who make the mistake rather than from someone else. And two, the sooner you talk to her, the sooner you can deal with the situation, and the sooner you can put it out of your mind and go back to being the awesome employee you have been all along.

    Good luck.

    1. Anonathon*

      Totally. With my last boss, I always knew that he would be reasonable as long as I kept him in the loop early and often. He (understandably) just disliked being the last to find out about a problem.

      On the flip side, I’ve managed folks who wouldn’t tell me about problems until they were so far gone that I had to drop everything else and go into Disaster Response Mode. Needless to say, don’t do this. Lack of communication can only exacerbate the problem.

  7. Sascha*

    How you handle the mistake is so crucial. Few things wreck credibility more than an employee who doesn’t treat a serious mistake as something serious, and makes excuses or gets defensive.

  8. Kai*

    Excellent advice. I especially think it’s important to explain why you made the mistake but not to seem like you’re making excuses for yourself, because otherwise the conversation will really backfire.

  9. been there*

    I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but even if you do everything suggested you can still be let go. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t. Lots of employers won’t give you a hint until you get pulled into HR.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Of course. That’s why I wrote this in the post: “Or, yes, you might hear that what happened was so serious that the above isn’t enough and your manager is still Highly Alarmed or — worst case scenario — even harboring real doubts about your fit for the role.”

      But the majority of people who make mistakes at work — even ones that seem big — aren’t fired for them, particularly if they’re otherwise stellar employees. So it’s possible but it’s probably not likely. It’s hard to say for sure without know more details of the mistake, of course, but I’m not sure what the point of is looming this specter over the OP. Of course she knows it’s possible. It’s always possible. But possible doesn’t mean likely.

      1. been there*

        I mentioned it because it’s happened to me and other people I know –their supervisor accepted their apology/plan going forward and then waited to let them go until they had their ducks in a row with HR or a replacement was found.

        I’m not saying it’s likely and I hope this doesn’t happen to the LW but I think it’s worth pointing out that employers only fire you immediately after a mistake.

        1. Joey*

          I don’t think we’re far enough to speculate. The op mentioned the mistake may lead to losing a contract. If in fact the contract is lost, if it’s a mistake that’s hard to understand making, and if it’s a significant contract that was a valuable one that’s certainly a possibility. But at the same time that’s a lot of if’s. And certainly wouldn’t change the course of action. Id much rather take my chances being truthful and proactive than the alternative.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I mean, that’s true, but I don’t see how the OP is well-served by that particular advice. It’s like telling everyone who writes in about asking for a raise, “hey, your manager might turn out to be a horrible person and fire you for asking!” It’s possible, but it’s not likely, and it’s not how sane managers operate.

          1. Jeanne*

            I think that while the OP could be fired, she might as well try to keep her job. She should follow what you said. Then, even if she is fired, she can know that she did the right thing. That is invaluable.

          2. Sal*

            Well, she could update her resume. I probably would, but I’m a pessimist (I prefer “optimistic realist”) like that.

      2. AdAgencyChick*

        +1. In fact, as a manager, if an employee did all of the things Alison suggests, I would probably think, “OP has been awesome at this job in the past, and she’s going to be HYPERAWARE of the potential for this kind of mistake in the future” — that is, I’d believe she’s likely to be an even better employee in the future because of what she’s learned!

        That being said, at my company, if a mistake is so severe that it does in fact cause a client to walk, most likely that employee will be let go, and maybe even others as well. Each of our clients produces enough revenue to keep several people employed, so if there’s not another client waiting in the wings to absorb those employees, the loss of an account often does mean the loss of staff, even if a mistake was not the cause :(

    2. PEBCAK*

      That means nothing as far as how the OP should address the situation. Certainly AAM’s advice would not make it more likely for someone to be let go, so what difference does it make?

      1. been there*

        Absolutely the LW should follow Alison’s advice, I was reacting to her mentioning that she hasn’t been let go since the mistake. I made the mistake of assuming my job was safe after I made a big mistake and my boss acted like she accepted my apology and my plan to make sure it never happened again. She never gave any indication that she had doubts about my ability to do the job until she pulled me into HR to let me go.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But I don’t see anything in her letter indicating she thinks her job is safe — the opposite, in fact. She’s quite worried.

          Also, your boss handled that situation horribly.

      2. been there*

        On reading the letter again, I see that the LW indicates she understands being let go is ultimately possible, so I apologize to her for coming off as alarmist and unhelpful. I was coming from a similar situation where I was led to believe my job was safe. Had my boss told me it wasn’t, I would have resigned before she could let me go.

        1. Marcy*

          The boss may not have known right then either. I had to let someone go recently for attitude and repeated mistakes caused by just not caring and had anticipated months and months of HR making me jump through hoops to be able to let the person go so I was genuinely trying to help the person improve in the meantime in case either HR didn’t let me let them go or in case the person miraculously got better. It turned out that my HR was totally reasonable and they saw what I was dealing with and called him in for a formal pre-PIP talk and he blew it by letting his attitude show and they let him go right then.

  10. SQL Rebel - Without A Where Clause*

    You’re not alone I’ve made some rally big mistakes with some SQL updates. I was meant to move about 30 jobs to a new department, but I moved nearer 600,000 jobs the knock on impact to the accounting system took me 3 weeks to fix and had developers with 30 years experience crying at the prospect of fixing the data.

    A slight flaw in the column heads in a report I distributed resulted in one departments fee income being understated by $67,000,000

    All these mistakes were pretty bad but my boss was really understanding, in fact he said to me “show me someone who’s never made a mistake and I’ll show you someone who’s never tried to do anything.”

    Taking responsibility for what went wrong , work at showing your boss you understand the impact of your mistake and demonstrate how you will stop it happening again, one mistake no matter how egregious wont undo all your good work and credibility that you built up.

    1. Wasted Donuts*

      “show me someone who’s never made a mistake and I’ll show you someone who’s never tried to do anything.”

      Love this.

    2. Eli*

      OH MY GOD your screen name. I died.

      Signed, self-taught SQL person who thankfully has so far only totally b0rked up the test system. Well. Almost only.

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      I’m guessing the first mistake you mentioned was because you were without a where clause? :) I love your name, too!

    4. Windchime*

      I also love your name.

      Years ago, I wrote a program that was tested in the test system but, because of different conditions in the live system, caused an infitnite loop when we ran it in production and I brought down the production system single-handedly. Hundreds of users were suddenly unable to do anything. An engineer had to delve into the system and find out what was locking the memory and force a quit on my job. So yeah, I’ve made some pretty big mistakes as well. All we can do is be truly apologetic, acknowledge the mistake, show that we truly understand the repercussions and then learn from it.

      Good luck, OP. Sounds like you have the right mindset and will survive this mistake.

    5. mm*

      I once accidentally deleted all of our user file backups when I was first learning Linux. I told my boss immediately and he was really nice about it. He said we should just keep our fingers crossed that no one would need a file recovered for a while, before we had a chance to build up some more backups.

      1. Connie-Lynne*

        I once discovered that all our user backups were corrupt by asking for a file recovery.

        Thus is the lesson learned: your backups are not fully checked until you’ve successfully restored from them.

        1. SQL Rebel - Without A Where Clause*

          I was reading creativity inc (written by the guy who founded Pixar) they lost every single file they had for toy story two and when they went for the back up they found it hadn’t been working for quite some time. They thought they were screwed and had lost months and months of work without any way of recovering it, but someone had copied the files to a external hard drive so they could work at home so they saved the project.

          Two things happened as a result of the error:

          1 – It was made a lot harder to issue a delete command that wiped everything
          2 – Back ups were tested regularly from that point on

          I was amazed to see just how balanced and reasonable the guy sounded about what was a catastrophic failure, but it was very much a case of lets fix the process and not have it happen again.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Ugh. I had to fix mine too when I accidentally overwrote a whole page of manuscript notes, including part of a scene I had spent two days working on. >_<

            From then on, stuff always goes in ONE direction–from flash drive to hard drive. Always. And anytime I've been working on the flash drive (especially if it's at lunch at work), as soon as it goes into the USB on my personal computer, everything gets copied over. And I back up my computer too.

            And I just uploaded a crap-ton of stuff to Google Drive, because the other day I LOST MY FLASH DRIVE. I drove all the way back to work in my PJs at nine o'clock at night because I thought I might have dropped it but it wasn't there. When I got home, I found it stuck in the binder of my hard copy edit. WHEW.

            Procedures. Procedures followed to the letter = as much security as fallible humans can possibly manage.

  11. Lily in NYC*

    Ugh, I know how horrible you must feel. I made a mistake that cost my former company $50,000 and I didn’t get in even a tiny bit of trouble. The reason is because like you, I was considered a stellar employee there and it was my first mistake in 5 years. My boss also said that I was beating myself up way more than they would so they just let it go. And my boss felt guilty because she should have caught the mistake as well. I loved that job. I hope you will be treated the same way I was.

    1. AVP*

      It’s amazing how much money $50,000 seems like on a personal level, and how little it feels in terms of a corporation’s annual budget. Blows my mind whenever I deposit a check for $100K or so.

      1. louise*

        So true! I made a $1200ish error recently and it wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar. (I failed to take a terminated employee off the group’s health insurance so we kept paying for him). The accountant, who found it, told my boss a day or two later how lucky we are I’m here. I knew it was a small error and certainly not firable, but I didn’t think I was exactly praiseworthy that week.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I made a 50k error also. I hunted down the boss and told him right when it happened. It took us 45 minutes to fix it. WELL. When he did the monthly numbers they were skewed. Fortunately, I remembered my 45 minute error and reminded him. That saved him a lot of headache, he thought it was really good on my part to figure out how the numbers would impact the monthly numbers.

      My point is for the OP to keep mopping clean up. I have no idea of the details of your setting but be prepared to help out in any way with fixing things. In my case here, all I had to do was “see” in my head how the numbers raised and lowered each other, BUT it was several weeks later after the incident. I was able to gain back some of what I had lost because of thinking things through.

      I will say, OP, I have made some biggg mistakes- not just this one. I am amazed what companies will tolerate if everything else is good. You are good worker, you realize your mistake and apologize, etc, these things all add up and yes, it does make a difference. If you talk to them the way you sound here, then I am optimistic for you.

  12. Mike B.*

    I made a comparably serious and costly error a few years ago (overlooking a carelessly introduced factual error on a piece that was to be printed). After recovering from the mortification and panic, I looked at my professional habits and identified areas that would benefit from reappraised quality control efforts. I can’t say I haven’t missed an error since, but I’ve made it much less likely that a serious error will make it to print.

  13. Rebecca*

    I made a huge mistake once with a wire transfer from my employer’s bank to cover a letter of credit. I overstated the amount needed by 10’s of thousands of dollars. I was the backup person on this process, and I had given the docs to the company president that morning to authorize the transfer. Later that day, I realized the spreadsheet had a serious miscalculation. I hadn’t set it up but it was the direct cause of the error.

    I was terrified, but immediately went to the president’s office, explained what happened, and told him I’d fixed the calculation and the steps I was taking to make sure it didn’t happen again. I also told him I’d bring the primary LC person up to speed when she returned to the office.

    He was great about it! He thanked me for coming to him directly, and asked me if we would have future transfers that week for this customer. I told him we did, so he said to just deduct the extra amount transferred that day from future transfers that week so it would all even out. I was so relieved.

    But – the gotcha crew in Accounts Payable saw this, and instead of picking up the phone and calling me, went to my manager’s boss, who called him into the office, who then called me, and they started to grill me about LC transfers, how to do them, etc. I finally asked – is this about X? I just talked to the president about this, and these are the steps we’re taking. Much stammering occurred, and I was sent back to my desk.

    This was at my first job, the one with no sick time and stingy vacation time, plus attendance points issued for every little infraction. I was so glad to escape that environment!

  14. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

    Awful mistakes happen. Experienced managers/business owners don’t fire or even punish otherwise stellar employees who make an awful mistake (who also follow Alison’s excellent advice).

    I have made awful mistakes and I’ve forgiven awful mistakes. *Awful, 5 to 6 figure mistakes*

    Awful mistakes are by nature fireable offenses, btw. The reason otherwise stellar employees don’t get fired for them is that the awful mistake is considered a one off, which means firing the employee makes no sense because the boss is sure it won’t happen again. You’d just lose the otherwise great employee and not prevent anything bad from happening next.

    *caveat: how sane management would behave

    1. PEBCAK*

      I think the exception is when someone gets scapegoated. It’s not necessarily the best longterm decision, but sometimes a manager does have to reassure a client that Lucinda is no longer with the company to keep the client’s business.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        Yeah the “heads will roll!” to a client, a high up the food chain big wig, the press or even Congress. I’ve been fortunate to never work in the kind of industry/company where there was a “head will roll!’/so protect yourself first need.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I knew someone who once worked years ago at a major consumer magazine. She claimed they had a name on the masthead that was fake (say, Bob Jones). And if someone got particularly irate, they’d say, “Oh, yes, that was Bob Jones who did that–we’re going to fire him!” And then they’d change the fake name to a new one so they were ready for the next time.

      2. Koko*

        Yes, I think the calculation being made there is “value of Lucinda’s work” vs “value of client’s business.” The more important the client, the more likely that will happen. Conversely, the more valuable you are, the more likely your company will stand by you to the client, not even necessarily out of any sense of loyalty, but because they view losing you as more costly than losing that client. (E.g., this $10K client might leave, but if you go, there’s another four clients worth $20K whose business your company will lose because they’re difficult clients and you’re the one who has managed to build relationships with them.)

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          Yes but, the other factor is that you can appease clients in ways other than blood. There aren’t a whole lot of people who will feel good about ” we FIRED Lucinda!” You can appease them better, without making them feel guilty that Lucinda now can’t eat, with $$ make goods and/or transferring other people onto their account.

          Despite the egregious stories that make it onto AAM, in my 30 years I’ve found most business people are decent human beings and just want to be heard and have their problems solved.

          In the case of this post, we’re dealing with Lucinda’s mistake losing the account. If the account is already lost, firing her isn’t going to do any good. (And, ornery person than I am, I don’t think I’d want an account that could only be saved by throwing Lucinda out on the street, ’cause that ain’t right.)

    2. Joey*

      in theory yes, but awful mistakes are no longer awful when you’ve acted with care, quickly identified the error, elevated it appropriately, and took quick steps to correct it or minimize the impact of it.

    3. Connie-Lynne*

      Everyone who’s ever worked for me has always punished themselves for big mistakes so much harder than anything I could dream up.

  15. Mistakes Happen*

    I agree with many of the commenters and Alison: go to your boss, explain your mistake and how it happened, and make every effort to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Also, your manager may have some solutions to help fix the mistake and salvage the contract, if that’s possible. I had a huge issue when booking a block of hotel rooms for a tradeshow, and freaked out that this was going to cost the company a lot of money. I talked to my boss, and his suggestion ended up helping me recover the cost in its entirety. It was a huge headache and hassle for me, but financially, there was no penalty. Talk to your manager ASAP, there may still be a way to save the contract.

  16. Amtelope*

    We lost a client because someone made a careless clerical error that ended up having big, nasty consequences for our client and their customers. Our big takeaway from that was that it should not have been possible for one person neglecting to check one tab on a spreadsheet to do that much damage, and we totally revamped how that task gets done to make sure that there are always multiple QA checks on the information in question.

    I think a big part of regaining your supervisor’s trust is really thinking through how you can keep this from happening again (and “I’ll be more careful!” isn’t really a solution). Careless errors happen, and a system for QA/proofreading/checking one another’s work can save you from getting into trouble when they do happen.

    1. C Average*

      +1. High-risk stakes systems and processes should have some redundancy built in. (File under “business principles I learned from rock climbing”.)

        1. A Non*

          Ooh, so would I. I study aerial acrobatics, which has similarities. Things I’ve learned:

          – Be picky about who you’ll follow. Just because someone is nice doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. (And that’s how disasters happen.)

          – I’m having trouble making it pithy, but there’s something in here about learning to assess your skill level accurately and try things appropriate to it, instead of just shooting for the coolest thing in sight.

    2. J-nonymous*

      This is a great recommendation. And I think it augments Alison’s advice quite well. A mistake is a mistake, and it’s going to happen. But where are the areas in a particular process where a mistake can foul things up the most? If the OP can identify this, even if s/he doesn’t have a proposed solution for it, and present it in a way that doesn’t seem blaming (“Oh, the process is just broken”), then there’s a really good chance that the OP will come out of this unblemished.

      I’ve even seen people make costly mistakes, own up to them, propose solutions and have management invest the same mistake-maker to try to fix manual/broken processes to make them more error resistant. And those same people actually came out in much better standing as a result (taking on new responsibilities, improving future outcomes).

    3. Mike C.*

      Yes, hope is not a plan.

      Too often we take the attitude that “that guy who screwed up is totally at fault” when really there are a lot of external factors at play.

    4. Jamie*

      This. To me the mistake isn’t the typo – the mistake is having mission critical things go out without a check and balance system in place to catch human error.

      1. LBK*

        Well, a typo is still a mistake, but knowing that we are humans, not having a procedure in place to catch mistakes is definitely a mistake as well. Maybe we need a procedure to catch mistakes in making procedures about catching mistakes. Who QCs the QCer?

        1. Jamie*

          Right – I meant the typo wasn’t the big fire-able mistake. Because for the “holy crap this has to be right or we could lose a client and maybe our jobs” mistake there should be a procedure checking the accuracy before it goes out because people will always make typos – but letting critical stuff head out unproofed is the problem to be solved.

    5. Koko*

      “I’ll be more careful!” isn’t really a solution

      So true. A few years back, when I’d just started my current job, there were a couple of email blasts from myself and a coworker that went out with very small errors on them. Our boss was understanding, but asked us to come up with a solution so it wouldn’t happen anymore. Obviously, “I’ll try to proofread better,” isn’t really an implementable solution.) So my coworker and I agreed that we would proofread each other’s emails (which meant bowing out of reviewing each other’s copy, as we wanted the proofers to be seeing copy fresh the way a recipient would), and I also drafted up a very short checklist of maybe 6 or 8 kinds of common errors for us to specifically look for. Does this match that, do links go where they’re supposed to go, etc. Our boss loved the system, and it also was great for when we later had an intern available to proofread for us, because we could just give him or her the checklist and trust that the material had been adequately proofed, freeing us up to also review and edit each other’s copy. We’ve been error-free since then!

      1. Jamie*

        THAT is a plan to prevent it from happening again. I love that.

        I’ll try to be more careful means nothing because they didn’t do it on purpose the first time and so what’s to prevent the same accident from occurring again?

      2. AdminAnon*

        YES. We did something similar. Our e-blasts are often related to federal activities, so it’s imperative that we double and triple check anything that could possibly go wrong. After a couple of minor errors, we implemented a committee approach–we assigned one person from each department to look for specific things. For instance, one department is in charge of links, another is in charge of spelling/grammar, another is in charge of accuracy in dates/times, another is in charge of event information accuracy, etc. We have a primary and a backup (in case the primary is out/unavailable) and each department has to sign off on the content before it goes out. It kind of reminds me of the Apollo 13 (movie) “go for launch” sequence, when each flight controller has to annouce the system status for launch to occur.

    6. Connie-Lynne*

      Exactly. When I was in charge of Incident Review / Postmortems / Outage Reports / etc, our focus was always on “how do we change the system so that this problem never happens again,” or the even better “…so that this TYPE of problem never happens again?”

      Humans will always make errors.

  17. Minnow*

    Add me to the chorus of people who have made a significant mistake at work. It was borne of good intentions but led to my company having to assume thousands of dollars of liability. But here we are two years later and I am still employed by them both because my performance prior to and since the incident has been stellar, and because good management understands that no one is perfect and that even the best employees make mistakes. They’ve created an environment employees can be open about errors without significant fear of retribution and consequently we were able to catch the problem early and take the necessary steps to minimize the consequences. If this is the type of place you work in OP, I would take Alison’s advice and then try and put this situation behind you.

  18. Mabel*

    I have made a couple of big, visible mistakes at work over the last several years, but I normally produce excellent work, and my manager was very understanding both times. In one case, my team couldn’t get into a system to modify anything for about a week, but fortunately, everything looked/was fine on the client side of things. And I learned never to modify settings that I’m not 100% sure of (and even when I am 100% sure, to test in a test site first). I can’t remember exactly what the other mistake was, but I do remember my manager saying that it was better that this happened to me/us than to a client (because my mistake exposed a previously unknown issue).

    Earlier this week, I posted something that was supposed to wait until after the beginning of the year, and my manager wasn’t happy about it, but she was (again) understanding and said, “The only people who don’t make mistakes are the people who don’t do anything. :) You’ve been doing an awful lot lately, you’re entitled to a few :)”

    And BTW, this is over many years – I wouldn’t want everyone to think I make big mistakes often!

    But now that I’m thinking about this, I’m giving myself a warning: Just because my manager is understanding about mistakes, does not mean that I can take them lightly or be less careful.

    In an earlier comment, someone mentioned panic – I know that when I’m in a panic or trying to do/fix something in a hurry, I usually don’t think things through and make even more mistakes. So I’m working on making myself slow down to think about what needs to be done or who needs to be told or asked for help before I make it worse. It’s a hard habit to break, but it’s slowly changing.

  19. BritCred*

    I’ve done this twice in my career. Once as an 19 year old and once at 30 or so.

    19 year old: Missed that a payment for a house was £6k shy on a very very busy Friday. At the end of that day – well into overtime – I’m reconciling the accounts and realise. The only person of note that is still there is the Solicitor/Attorney who dealt with the client. So I go tell her as soon as I’m sure and I have the paperwork in hand to prove it. She’s annoyed but sensible and can sort it Monday morning. Bosses get a little annoyed and implement an extra paperwork check for a while and I was definately watched a lot closer. If we hadn’t recovered the money or I hadn’t been honest asap I probably would have been fired. We all learn that 30+ house completions between 2 people is far above what our cash department can do. I did lose some credability at home by saying “well it looked £25 out which is usual (to do with bank transfer fees – often happened) and I just skipped that it was a hell of a lot more with it…” but had the sense NOT to say that at work.

    30 year old – Mixed up names of financial institutions on a letter in debt collection. One client got faxed and the company called ranting and boss and I looked it over and realized. The rest of the letters were already at the post office and I near damn jumped out that door to get them back and redo them so it didn’t get to any others. Company calmed down (was trying to claim that LOTS had seen it when only one had so had little ground not to). When it came to my review as we ended it the boss hadn’t mentioned it so I asked why not. He said “you made an honest mistake, you didn’t bluster, you sorted it as soon as you could. And I don’t have to remind you to be more careful since. I don’t NEED to mention it.”

    So my honest view: Admit it to the best person in charge who is relevant. Go there with the paperwork in hand and with a potential plan to sort it and no excuses. Just ready to fix it. There may be some kickback but remain apologetic and honest about how it happened, why and why you believe that it shouldn’t happen again.

  20. Mike C.*

    Also make sure that this mistake wasn’t caused in part by current processes and policies in place. Lots of complicated tasks can seemingly be screwed up by “user error” are better corrected by changing how things are done.

    This is why pilots and surgeons use checklists for instance.

      1. LBK*

        I think what Mike meant is that if you were following procedure and the error still occurred, that casts doubt on the procedure itself and not as much on the person who made the error. Maybe another QC level should be in place or the system needs better verification or activity isn’t being tracked at enough of a granular level so important details aren’t captured.

        I’m dealing with this right now where a big discrepancy in client funds was missed due to blind spots in the allocation procedure. I was doing what I was expected to do, so it wasn’t necessarily negligence or incompetence on my part that caused the error. (Of course, I designed the procedure, so that one is my fault anyway…but you get my point.)

        1. Elizabeth West*

          This. One of my criminology instructors said if we all made below a certain level on the tests or missed certain questions consistently, that meant he wasn’t conveying the information to us properly and he would have to revamp HIS procedure.

    1. Tinker*

      Yeah, my thought for the scenario of “stellar employee, makes mistake that has huge consequences” is “what is the problem with the system that we are a) relying on a meatsack to do/not do things that have huge consequences b) that an excellent example of meat still could make an error where the effects were that large”?

      People are what they are, and while on an individual sense we rightly pay attention to the virtues (diligence, observation of significant detail, willingness to act) in taking the long view virtue will always fail. The trick is making a system where the level of failure in that case is acceptable or at least recoverable.

      The point: if, with the example in hand of this here error, you find a method of making this error systematically not happen (as opposed to resolving to not do the error every time it comes up in future FOR YOU) the potential benefits are HUGE.

      1. Mister Pickle*

        And, given that the mistake-maker is diligent in reporting the error and diagnosing the issues and working to fix the system to avoid a repeat, this is a great reason to not fire the mistake-maker.

        Except that sometimes politics or public sentiment forces the issue.

    2. Tinker*

      Oh, and I will also say — regarding the matter of pilots and surgeons, The Checklist Manifesto really illustrates the nature of the problem. Medicine is a profession that culturally is very dependent on, to continue my previous terminology, heroic meat — demanding of folks that they Be Good At spontaneously noticing things, attending to small details that require an aversive level of effort to address, retaining many items in working memory, performing complex intellectual tasks with little sleep, things like that. And they get a lot out of their meat that way. But the outcomes for extensively trained meat that is selected based on an unusual level of virtue and admonished extensively on the importance of Doing Things Right are not even in the same league as the outcomes for a piece of paper that says “Washed hands? (check box here)”. And the piece of paper is much easier to produce.

  21. The Maple Teacup*

    It would help to explain to your superiors how Mortified/Agast/Horrified/Appologetic you feel and that you Realize This Is A Very Big Deal that will not happen again. (and now the rest of the story)
    I was once terminated without cause for a Mistake. It didn’t cost the company money, but management was not pleased with my decision making process. Inwardly, I was mortified that I’d made such an error and knew never to do THAT again. Looking back, I’m not sure that I properly conveyed my awareness. I was suddenly let go a few months later. Hopefully this does not happen to you.

  22. NinaK*

    In my early 20s I made a huge clerical mistake at work that screwed up student visa processing for 3,000 study abroad students. I added the incorrect year to the dates of student travel which invalidated every single document (documents provided in strict numbers by the government.) A few days after the visa applications were sent out to offices around the world, I arrived at work to find my desk strewn with faxes from every single overseas office –they circled the mistake, wrote exclamation points – basically the equivalent of WTF? all over the documents.
    When I realized what had happened and could barely get my head around how the heck we were going to fix it I called my boss and told her what happened. Guess what she did? She just cracked up — laughing! The mistake was so huge, a logistical nightmare, I was ready to cry and she laughed and said “Oh s$it! how are WE going to fix this?!”

    Here is the takeaway – how many mistakes are truly unfixable or beyond forgiveness? We all make them, let’s just cut each other some slack and help each other through it.

    That boss is the person who told me about this blog so I am thinking she will see this =)

    LW, hang tough. You will get through this. And do what Allison said!

  23. LBK*

    One thing to consider, OP – groveling hard for this error when you’re generally seen as someone who doesn’t make mistakes can actually have unexpected positive benefits for your image. I was a neurotically accurate and self-sufficient employee in a previous job. Unfortunately, never making errors or having to ask for help gave me an image of being too proud to admit to my mistakes. One day when I finally did really eff something up and had no idea how to solve it, I threw myself at the mercy of my managers. Afterwards, my direct supervisor told me that being so open about an error surprised everyone so much that it helped my image – it made me come off as more humble than they’d previously thought.

    Now, I’m not suggesting great employees go around purposely making mistakes just so they can show how good they are at apologizing. But if you proceed as everyone has suggested and do a great job recovering from this, it can actually bolster your reputation in the long run once the dust has settled from the error.

  24. Stephen*

    If you are serious about figuring out what happened and taking concrete steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and you demonstrate that you are doing so, it is possible to convince your manager not to hold this against you. After all, at a certain point the person who made the mistake once is the one least likely to make it again.

  25. Mike*

    I’ve made enough mistakes that I pretty much have a set game plan for when it happens. It involves identifying the problem, size of impact, and difficulty of repairing; being liberal with notifying people and accepting responsibility, correcting the issue ASAP, and documenting what happened, when it happened, why it happened, and how to avoid it in the future.

    I’ve had some doozies over the years but never had anything more than a request for clarification of what happened.

  26. writemeup*

    Focusing in for a moment on OP’s thought that the mistake merits being written up… If the mistake really is a big one and if the employer uses some kind of disciplinary action process, I think her manager should document the mistake and the resolution in OP’s personnel file. Some of the amounts others have listed ($5k or even $10k) seem relatively small. But, if you’re talking $50k or losing a contract with a really important client, that’s pretty big time. I’d want something like that on your record.

    It’s totally possible, given OP’s history of stellar contributions, that the employer will be understanding and may not insist on documenting the mistake. But, that has me wondering whether OP herself shouldn’t then write up a narrative about the situation and resolution to put in her own file.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But, that has me wondering whether OP herself shouldn’t then write up a narrative about the situation and resolution to put in her own file.

      I don’t see any reason to do that; that’s really the manager’s call. Also, a lot of workplaces don’t even have formal write-ups like that, so producing one herself could come across very strangely. But even if they did, I think that’s a little too “hair-shirt” for the situation.

      1. Jamie*

        I did not see this until I refreshed due to posting below and I think it’s funny that we’re both opposed to hair-shirts in the office.

        Those need to be banned on every office dress code. :)

    2. Jamie*

      I wouldn’t. If they need to follow procedure and document they will. But the onus on the OP is to follow the advice to fully acknowledge it’s a very big deal and come up with a plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again and then make sure it doesn’t happen again.

      If they don’t write her up or need anything in her file she shouldn’t do it for them – that’s like noticing you were speeding and driving to the police station to pay a ticket they didn’t write. And tbh it would look weird. If a manager doesn’t feel the need to write it up, and you do, that’s beyond taking responsibility and kind of either showy about the hair shirt or some other reason to need to escalate it when the bosses don’t. She needs to show she’s mortified, but can learn and bounce back from mistakes in a professional way and this would detract from that.

      Besides, if there is a change in management you don’t want something like this biting you down the road when it’s long in the past and hasn’t been repeated. Don’t supply people with ammo.

      1. Kelly L.*

        And sometimes when you hair-shirt, you set inevitable processes in motion. Didn’t we have a letter a few months ago where an OP reported herself for something her boss didn’t really care about, and then the company had to put her on a PIP or some other type of remedial action?

      2. Connie-Lynne*

        Tangentially on your police-station comment, my dad called the cable company to tell them they were receiving free cable in their new house. Three times, and then when they still didn’t know what to do he wrote them a letter. And another letter. And finally sent a letter via return-receipt mail.

        OH DAD

        1. Jessa*

          Yeh but in that case your father could likely have ended up with either a huge bill (if they were nice,) or a trip to court for stealing cable (if they were not nice.) Some things you have to make due diligence to notify. At that point when the collections agent calls or someone subpoenas you to court you can prove that you notified them properly and are therefore off the hook for free service that they decided to give you even after being told.

  27. Picky commentor*

    All I wanted to say was, this sucks and I feel for you. But nearly everyone has been there, and if you handle it with humility and ownership, you can minimize the chances of a negative aftermath. Good luck!

  28. Occasional Alaskan*

    I work as a manager for a seasonal tourism business in Alaska. Something I tell my guide crew every season at the end of training is “Your own personal fuck-ups will teach you way more than I ever could.” Granted, I work in an industry where dealing with the unexpected (weather, wildlife, clients) is par for the course. But I am a LOT more confident in guides who have worked here long enough to have some really whopper mistakes under their belt because I KNOW that those guides have a deep and heartfelt appreciation of how things can go wrong, and how to go about fixing situations when $hit inevitably happens.

    OP, I hope your talk with your manager goes as well as it can, and please try, as much as you can right now, to view this as an opportunity to grow – both regarding the specific error you made, and also in the more general sense of how to go about dealing with and recovering from Big Scary Mistakes.

  29. GiantPanda*

    I work in teapot testing. Our team has the saying that you are not a real tester if you’ve never dropped a production model when you were supposed to use a crash test dummy – and we are all still there.
    Good luck with your boss.

  30. Cassie*

    Definitely agree with AAM’s advice. Everyone makes mistakes but how someone responds to their own mistake is very telling (especially when it’s a major mistake).

    As the supervisor, I’d also be looking at the big picture – is there something that needs to or can be done to prevent a similar mistake in the future? Or did the employee not do all the steps required and that’s why this occurred? If the employee is deliberately skipping a step, that would make me a little less understanding.

  31. K.*

    I have had to knock on my boss’s door and open the conversation with, “I f*cked up,” and it’s so hard. SO hard. (Though in that particular job that was appropriate language, haha, which oddly enough helped.) And it was awful because I really respected that boss and didn’t want to disappoint her.

    But getting it out into the open was better than sitting on it. Both because it meant I had an ally in getting it fixed and also because the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Be up-front and get it out in the open and it will be less painful than anything otherwise.

  32. LJ*

    This is so helpful. Last week I sent money to an international bank account. I was meant to send it in Gbp but sent it Gbp equivalent to Swiss franks! The client lost out due to the current exchange rate and they had requested it be sent gbp. I was mortified. Then the company had to compensate nearly £4500. I have apologies to the relevant persons involved, owned up. The error was just me inputting the payment not questioning anything. I am mortified I cost the company. I am however leaving to start a new job in 4 weeks. However I am struggling to have trust in myself. After this I just feel rather stupid! Any help on how to get over this would be much appreciated. Thank you all

    1. Serena*

      LJ, I committed a very similar error recently (one of the reasons why I’m on this page). I hope, now that it’s been several months and you’re at a new job, that you’ve forgiven yourself and took away only a good lesson learned.

  33. OldAdmin*

    I will never forget my second serious job where I administrated the company mail server running under Unix.
    In the first hour of the first day, I was editing the password file (this is a very long time ago where there reasons to do that), and I deleted the first character in the first line of said file… thus destroying and locking out the root user… and all sorts of other system problems esued… including company-wide disruption of mail.
    I went to my technical director, told him of my mistake, how it had happened (scrolled out of view on the monitor, and I hadn’t double-checked), and offered to go home immediately with no resistance.
    He said “Let me look at this and talk to you later.”
    I sat at my desk in a daze for an hour. I think I even called home I would be coming soon.
    The technical director returned “It’s working again. I broke into the the system and was able to fix the password file.”
    I repeated my offer.
    He: “Just don’t do it again. This will be a lesson to you.”

    Yes, I learned my lesson: Always Be Afraid Of The Return Key.

    When I later became a senior, I used similar policy of letting honesty be a mitigating circumstance, if at all possible. My punishment, if any, was the person who messed up had to do his utmost to help fix it no matter how long it took. Even if it was me. Also known as “Learning Through Pain” :-)

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