how to rebuild your credibility after messing up at work

When you really mess up at work, it can harm your reputation and your relationship with your managers and coworkers. We’re not taking about small mistakes here; you’re human and hopefully you a fairly reasonable manager who understands that. We’re talking about major screw-ups– the ones that affect your manager’s trust in you, impact your raise, and even make you worry about your job.

When you really step in it, you might feel like you’ll never recover from it. But you can often rebuild your credibility if you make a concerted effort to repair the damage. Here’s how.

1. Acknowledge what happened. When you mess up, talking about it might be the last thing you feel like doing. But how you take responsibility for what happened will be one of the biggest elements in the impression it leaves on people. Immediately admit what happened, and don’t make excuses or get defensive. Use words like, “I really screwed this up” and “I get what a big deal this it.” In fact, the more concerned you seem, the less your boss is likely to feel that she needs to impress the severity of the mistake on you.

2. Talk about why it happened. Sometimes people worry that if they address the “why” of a mistake, it will sound like they’re making excuses. But this isn’t about making excuses; it’s about figuring out how you can make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Was it an isolated incident? Does it point to a larger problem with your systems or approach to the work? Are there safeguards you can put in place to avoid it happening again, or other changes you can make that will help?

3. Work hard. Really hard. If you’ve been cutting corners, stop. Stay late. Do the extras. Over time, this will become people’s more recent impression of you, not your mistake. Plus, your manager will see that you’re working hard and will assume it’s an attempt to get past the mistake, which she’ll appreciate.

4. Communicate. You might be tempted to just keep your head down and avoid your boss, because you might be nervous about talking with her or getting feedback on your work. That’s the worst instinct you can have in this situation. If your boss does have serious concerns about you, going underground will exacerbate them. Keeping open lines of communication and talking to her about the good work you’re doing will help mitigate the concerns that got raised earlier.

5. Think about what worries this may have raised for your boss or others and find ways to counteract them. For example, if your boss is now worried that you’re careless or prone to poor judgment when dealing with clients, make a particular point of demonstrating attention to detail and great client judgment.

6. Be willing to accept increased scrutiny for a while (but not forever). It’s going to be natural for your manager to pay closer attention to your work for a while. You might have to deal with more intensive questioning than you’ve had in the past. This is a normal part of the process of moving on from a serious mistake and rather than seeing it as something annoying, you should see it as something that will help you rebuild trust. That said, you shouldn’t be in the hot seat forever. If you demonstrate reliable, high quality work over a sustained period of time (we’re talking months here, not days) and the increased scrutiny never lets up, that might be a sign that it’s going to be hard to overcome that mistake with this manager.

7. Don’t panic. When you know you’ve really screwed up, you might naturally panic or obsess about how you’re now seen. But to the extent you can, it’s important to put this behind you mentally, because dwelling on it will often keep you in a tense mental space where you’re more likely to mess up again – the opposite of what you want. So try not to obsess over it too much, and remember that most people who make mistakes at work – even big ones – aren’t fired for them.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. The Other Dawn*

    Biggest thing I’ve learned about making mistakes is to admit it right away and proactively. Don’t wait for someone to discover it and don’t try to hide it. Things are so much easier that way. Sure, it’s really hard to admit to a big mistake that costs the company money or causes the department to miss a really important deadline, but as a manager I want to know that my people are more interested in dealing with it, determining how to prevent it in the future, and moving on, rather than how they can hide it and hope no one notices. Admitting a mistake and taking the heat really shows someone’s judgment and maturity.

  2. AMG*

    Also be mindful of the coworkers you have negatively impacted because of the mistake. Apologize andgo out of your way to be hepful to them. People will forgive. Onemore I have learnd–dont judge others too harshly because ‘that idiot’ could be you tomorrow. We’re all human.

  3. Susan the BA*

    The best advice I got about making a mistake at a new job was “develop worse long-term memory.” I had done something that really (understandably) upset a professor, but was something that could be fixed. My boss said, “I promise that if you do great work every day, he won’t even remember that this happened in six months.” And it was true! He became one of my biggest fans and I became one of my boss’s most trusted employees. If I (or my boss) had let that mistake define me, that would have been the real disaster.

  4. Jillociraptor*

    Timely — I just posted about a mistake in the Friday Open Thread and I’m glad to have a roadmap to addressing it!

    1. beachlover*

      If you have already taken steps to rectify the error, then make sure you communicate that also. This would be at the same time you tell your boss about the error.

      Rose! I am sorry, I completely left last months sales and shipments out the TMS report. However, I notified everyone and sent out a corrected copy.

  5. RaneBoe Bright*

    This is a must have in other relationships too (romantic and parent/child)….!

  6. KT*

    I am all about owning it, correcting it, and talking about how you’ll prevent it again. No matter how small, admit your fault!

    “I’m really sorry my email had the CEO’s name spelled incorrectly in the email. I made sure to update the template, and I created a quality-control checklist to be completed by anyone sending out eblasts to keep it from happening again”

    1. AntherHRPro*

      Exactly. My advice is always: 1)acknowledge it and apologize, 2)share why it happened to show that you understand what went wrong, 3)explain the steps you have put in place to make sure it does not happen again.

  7. Evey Hammond*

    I’m curious as to how much this extends to things that don’t necessarily count as “messing up” per se, but are definitely not 100% kosher in the workplace. In my current position, for example, there was a period where I had some pretty intense crying jags at work (some for work reasons, some not), and while I tred to keep them under wraps, my manager ended up seeing a few of them. Not exactly a mistake, but definitely not something I want to repeat, and definitely something that impacts how my coworkers see me wrt professionalism. (This is my first “real” job out of grad school, though, so I think they are inclined to go a little easier on me than they normally would.)

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      It’s good that you realize that a lot of crying is not ideal. I have a “first job out of grad school” person right now who cries a LOT, and it has really impacted her professional standing. It got to the point where a community partner called to ask for tips on how to communicate with a person who breaks into sobs at the first sign of less-than-stellar feedback. It can feel very personal to you when you are the one crying, but it can really throw off professional interactions. It has made us question if we need to hire people with a few more years experience. I’m not saying any of this to make you feel bad at all…because it sounds like you know. Just processing this issue in my own office. I also want to add….entering the workforce can be stressful….and a therapist can be hugely helpful with that transition.

      1. Blamange*

        Aww man feedback is hard, she may just be really sensitive to it.

        The one time I cried in my current job was my performance was not doing well because of my auntie died (this was back in March) and I asked for the day off for her funeral. I was allowed it, explained to my boss that I was sorry if my performance had been lacking lately my mind was elsewhere, she said it was fine this was on the Saturday (it’s so hard in customer service/hospitality positions to put stuff like that in the back of your mind) and then on that Monday before the funeral on the Friday she called me in and said ‘I am going to have to review your contract to put you in to full time as you’re sad lately and not putting in the 100%. If you’re not 100% before the funeral Friday we will have to talk about your future with us’. I just broke down in tears, Luckily things are fine now a few months on but omg worst two weeks of my life. She admitted later in the week she was in the wrong though about it all and was sorry. Only reason I want to stay is because the company benefits are better than the boss and she seems to have relaxed lately.

        It can sure be stressful I totally agree! What would you do if your boss is the one who started crying when giving feedback to you? My boss came close to it last week. Awkward, I think she was expecting me to cry because I did it in that situation above.

        1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

          You know, I know that feedback can be hard, but a lot of this wasn’t even really negative feedback – it was more training/coaching while I felt like she should be prepared for out of the gate. Like “hey, I don’t think I’ve told you think before, but when you enter that data, please be sure to do x as well – we’re required to track that”. Or people trying to process through a problem in a collaborative way when no one was to blame. I understand being told you’ve messed up can be really difficult, but when you’re new at a job you’re going to be constantly hearing information about stuff you should and should not be doing. I expect that new employees are pretty prepared to have that type of conversation.

          1. Blamange*

            Yes that she should be prepared for totally. Asa new employee especially during training you should be prepared to hear that.

          2. Shannon*

            I used to have problems with crying when receiving feedback, too. In my case, I eventually figured out that it was because I didn’t at that time have a “professional” vocabulary, if you will. I didn’t know how to stick up for myself in a professional manner, so I wound up feeling like I couldn’t say anything at all, which just added to the frustration I was all ready feeling.

      2. Evey Hammond*

        Oh, yeah, I completely realize that it’s not ideal. In my case the crying wasn’t due to negative feedback, but because there were certain aspects of the job that I wasn’t prepared for. I’m on contract filling in for someone who went on mat leave, and I was only nabbed for the position about a month before she was due to start; that time restriction plus an unprecedented number of snow days meant that I wasn’t very thoroughly trained in a lot of areas, which led to some pretty intense frustration on my part. (My house burned down around the same time, which didn’t help!) Don’t worry about making me feel bad- it WAS unprofessional, and I was pretty mortified whenever it happened! Things have evened out a lot now, and luckily my manager was very understanding, but I think my coworkers are still a little unnerved by it. And honestly, I can’t really blame them!

        1. Windchime*

          I think most of us would be tearful at work if our house burned down! I know I sure would be. Seems like your boss might cut you a little slack on that one.

          1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

            Yeah, I would totally cut you some slack on the house burning down. And to be clear, I’m not talking about a short period with some tears being a problem…I’m taking about 3+ times a week over several months. Nearly everyone cries at work once in a while.

    2. KT*

      I’m going to be blunt–crying at work in inexcusable in all but the most dire of situations (i.e. a close family member dying). Crying at work IS messing up.

      Once or twice may be excused due to extenuating circumstances, but multiple crying jags is going to make people think you just can’t hack it in the workplace. Being new and just out of school won’t help that perception, it will make it worse.

      I would ABSOLUTELY own the mistake to your manger, apologize, and let her know it won’t happen again.

      You need to get a handle on it. Therapy if it seems too big to handle on your own.

      I get it, I really do. I’m one of those people who cries when I’m angry, when I’m embarrassed, and once I get started, there’s no stopping me. If I feel myself losing it, I get myself out of the situation, then I go to the bathroom/my car/whatever can get it out of my system. I clean myself up and get out of there and never let anyone know. Biting the inside of my cheek, holding something like a pen, all can help fend off the tears, but you need to develop some kind of strategy and composure, or you’re in for a brutal work life.

      1. fposte*

        I’m going to disagree, especially because I think “inexcusable” is an unnecessarily rough word. I think it’s okay to cry at work–what’s not okay to be a crier at work. What categorizes you as a crier is going to depend on how long you’ve been there, what’s eliciting the response, how teary you’re getting, and what the workplace is. Oh, yeah, and its effect on key work functions. I’ve had employees cry when they think they made a big mistake or are going through stuff that makes them frustrated with their performance, and I haven’t held it against them–the tears don’t shut down discussion, and they’re not common responses from these employees.

        1. fposte*

          Though I guess I was talking from the manager standpoint while you were trying to explain to employees, especially those who might not yet know. So I’m still not sure about “inexcusable,” but I think your firmness makes more sense on that side.

          1. KT*

            I hear you–I was responding to the person’s comment that it wasn’t “messing up per se, but not 100% kosher”–making it sounds like while she knew it wasn’t normal behavior, she didn’t think it was a big deal.

            Perhaps inexcusable was too harsh if talking about a one-time or very rare thing–we’re not robots and life happens–loved ones pass away, homes burn down, huge mistakes happen–but multiple crying jags IS inexcusable, and not something you can do more than a handful of times without getting judged. And treating is as anything but unprofessional would never fly in anywhere I worked. If it does happen (and most I’ve worked with subscribed to the cry in the bathroom stall method), the standard procedure was to apologize to boss or coworkers and make sure it never happened again.

            1. bridget*

              It’s not exactly “messing up” in the sense that it’s used in Alison’s article, because the next steps are different. Unlike accidentally failing to order paper for the month, it’s not the sort of “mistake” where your first step should be to inform your superiors and get an action plan in place to get more paper. It’s not a good work habit and something that Evey Hammond should strive to solve, but it’s not the same type of thing and requires a different strategy to fix it.

              Evey, Alison has addressed topics like this before – depending on how visible it is, you may want to say something to your boss in the vein of “I know that wasn’t an appropriate reaction, I am actively working on keeping my emotions in check at work, thanks for your patience.”



            2. Anonna Miss*

              I’m going to agree with KT. Crying at work is a Bad Thing. “Die before you cry at work”, I’ve heard. I’m not that stoic, but I try to remember this. I’ve been absolutely mortified when I cried at work, especially if it was work-relate, and definitely preferred the bathroom stall to being out in the open.

              I had a direct report who cried at any feedback that was less than glowing, so our (male) boss just disallowed any criticism of her. This just made her impossible to manage, and colored perceptions of her. (I left, and I’m so glad she’s not my problem anymore.)

              I really hate to say this, but I suspect male managers have a much bigger dislike for employees crying at work. Many female managers aren’t going to like it, but might be a bit more tolerant.

              My theory is that it’s just how (white middle class?) Americans are socialized – boys are allowed to get angry when they’re upset; girls are allowed to cry. Many don’t unlearn this early socialization by the time they’re in the workforce.

      2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Oh, this again. I believe we’ve had the Great Crying Wars here before.

        My position: We are human. Humans cry sometimes. Some humans cry more easily than others, and some humans have a hard time controlling the release of tears. Crying can be uncomfortable for others around us (and can, intentionally or not, manipulate others’ behavior), so we should strive to limit it. But let’s not shame people for being human, or call their natural human behavior “inexcusable.”

        1. Tears Dry on Their Own*

          I agree with you for the most part, but if you are crying so much that you cannot interact with other people or do your work consistently it’s definitely inexcusable.

      3. Tears Dry on Their Own*

        Oh boy, crying at work. I know this well. I’ve only done it once and it was due to a high stress situation that also led me to break out in hives. It happens but it’s also important to reign it in, (you want to look like a cool cucumber under pressure to inspire confidence in your boss & coworkers, and damnit never give in!), and very skillfully excuse yourself to the restroom if you must. It’s disruptive and worrying for everyone, but that’s why you’re in touch with your emotions, and know what your triggers are and how to regulate, right? Hopefully. Now I’ll give an alternative view of crying a lot.

        I actually have an acquaintance that cries uncontrollably because she is emotionally and mentally unstable. Anything that upsets her for whatever reason can set her off. An overheard comment, a story about someone else, a joke at a comedy show, literally ANYTHING. I once mentioned “that was a loud cough” when someone coughed so loudly we could hear them from a block away, and she got upset and told me “that was a mean comment.” Crying consistently, day after day, with no real trigger might be more than just unprofessional, it’s a red flag that this person cannot regulate their own emotions and might not be able to handle their work. Thankfully she works in a very small office in a slow part of town where the work is really not very mentally taxing (and where she has a lot of oversight).

        1. ellaf*

          Nobody will ever see me cry at work, I refuse to give them the satisfaction. I am fine owning up to my mistakes, but some people just don’t seem to get that I AM NOT A F*** ROBOT. I am a human being.

    3. Anonymusketeer*

      I have cried at work way too many times. It bothers some managers more than others, but it’s obviously never helpful.

      In the case of negative feedback or some other work-related cause, I said something like “I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable. I’m trying very hard not to be defensive and take this personally, but I’m upset with myself.” If you’re not able to say that at the time, at least say it later when you’ve calmed down.

      In hindsight, I probably would have benefitted from some therapy, and I honestly think one of my managers was a little bit emotionally manipulative, while the others were just bad at giving feedback in any form other than a come-to-Jesus meeting.

  8. Blamange*

    Moving to a different job helped me combat my fear about tackling mistakes in the work places, a lot of how I reacted to mistakes and not owning up to them earlier in my career, stemmed from childhood.

    I’m getting better at it.

  9. Alistair*

    Very timely, as I’m in the after-mistake timeframe right now. Working hard, being upbeat, and saying “how high” when the boss says “jump” have been my MO for the past two weeks. I also made heartfelt apologies to my boss and my Awesome Coworker who helped drag me through the fire and flames. (Also bought him beer)

    A very difficult part for me has been the “why” discussion (mostly in my head) because it all sounds like excuses, and I hate excuses. Trying to see the Why as Reasons and Causes rather than Excuses is important to a long term solution for me, but it’s so damned hard to do.

  10. SLaw*

    but sometimes some good comes out of it. I cried at work after a more senior associate just absolutely berated me for some minor, typical mistakes a first year would make. I actually felt I was about to be in physical danger from the way he acted. The partners investigated and found out the other associate was high on something while at work and absolved me and did not let him supervise junior associates afterwards (fast forward a few weeks – that associate was arrested at the office for other criminal offenses…)

    1. Connie-Lynne*

      I cried at work once when a junior physically attacked me. Well, not during the attack, but immediately after when I was reporting her.

      She’d been a problem for a while, but nobody was willing to address it. I think that had I not been so obviously upset, senior management would have continued to try to brush her bad behavior under the rug.

  11. Ruby*

    Wow, thanks so much for this, Alison. I made a pretty huge mistake today (deleted EVERY picture from our recent national retreat) and this is helping me keep my eyes on how to make it better.

  12. SP*

    I think it also depends on your workplace. In one of my jobs, I accidentally deleted photos of our property, which came from a $1,500 shoot. My boss BLASTED me. I’m talking, screaming at me behind a closed door (with everyone in the office able to hear every word). With the way she reacted, I almost didn’t walk into work the next day.

    It didn’t matter that I understood my mistake and took responsibility for it, or that I offered solutions to fix the problem. It didn’t matter that I scrambled for the next few days to fix it. And as it turns out, these photos were stored in 4-5 other places! It didn’t matter, because she still yelled at me for it. She still had no problem saying “And what about those photos? What are you going to do about those photos?” during every meeting and interaction with her. No other topic of work could be covered, without hearing her frustration over the photos. I heard through the grapevine that there was serious consideration for firing me over the ordeal.

    I have never been so humiliated by a boss in my entire life. Over photos!!

  13. SP*

    I think it also depends on where you work. At one of my jobs, I accidentally deleted photos from a $1,500 shoot. Not all of them, but some. I really, honest to God had no idea I made this error – I had meant to copy them to another folder in our shared drive. My boss found out, and was furious. She called me in, asked me questions, having no idea what she was talking about. When I realized the error, I really did admit to my mistake, I took responsibility for it, I discussed options to fix it – to no avail. She screamed at me with the door closed, but with everyone in the office hearing every word come out of her mouth. Even though I fixed it immediately and recovered the photos within a day – for the next month – yes, MONTH – she continued with it. During meetings irrelevant to any photos, she would respond to anything I said with “And what about the photos? What are you going to do about that?” I had to keep reminding her that the photos were recovered and in their correct place – I think that made me look ballsy. It got to the point where I could not interact with her without hearing about the photos.

    The way she made me feel about this was so blown out of proportion that I reconsidered even walking into work the next day. I don’t know how I did it.

    1. ellaf*

      I don’t know how you did it either. For me, I don’t give a rip what I did, yelling at me is verbal assault, abuse and I would not take that at home or at work, or anywhere. I would have walked right out on that woman. Sure, your mistake was huge and she was rightly upset, but her behavior was not cool. Now for my part, I have done some petty mistakes and I get hell about those all the time. I haven’t been yelled at, but I have the feeling I am expected to be perfect because I work in an admin function. Well, newsflash, I’m not perfect. Typos will happen; I will occasionally forget or misplace something, expecting people to be robots is just insane. If a mistake is minor, first off calm the f*** down, figure out why it happened, try and learn from that, move on. Another thing, I’ve noticed, certain other people are allowed minor errors, but if I make one suddenly the sky is falling. By certain other people I mean managers and people who are considered “brilliant” and who matter more than me, apparently.

  14. J*

    My favorite story is about a crane operator who dropped his load into a main waterline that flooded two factory floors. Millions of dollars of equipement and lost productivity gone. Months were required to fix the damage. The moment the crane operator saw his mistake, he picked up his lunch box and left, never to be seen again. Everyone knew he would never operate a crane for the rest of his life.

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