I lied to my boss and said I’ve been doing a task I haven’t actually done

A reader writes:

I started at my company in an administrative role and was quickly promoted to a highly technical role, which came as a challenge. My technical experience being quite limited, I met with some freelance consultants to go over the nuts and bolts of the role. I was scrambling to understand a lot of information very quickly, and when my boss asked me early in the training process if I had been trained on one specific task yet, I confused knowing what the task meant with actually knowing how to do it, and I said yes.

I know I should have cleared it up once I realized later that day that it wasn’t true. But I was learning so much so fast and had to get through everything with the freelancers in the time allotted. I figured the freelancers would cover this eventually. But they didn’t, and I forgot about this, and then training ended. Weeks passed, and then out of the blue my boss asked me how this task has been going. I panicked. I didn’t lie but I didn’t tell him I haven’t been doing it.

It’s a recurring task that only needs to be done every once in a while, and it’s just about checking up on one element of our technical set-up, so I said something like “Good thinking, I should take a look at how things are going with that.” So … sort of implying I had done it before. Which isn’t honest, I know!

Right after that, I tried finding guides and tutorials online and in local organizations for professionals in this industry. But I can’t find anything. I know that I have to say something now, but I’m terrified.

How can I fix this? Can I fix it? If you were my boss, would you ever be able to move past this if I came clean and took the steps to learn it now? I’m in a panic and I just want to make it right.

You can fix this.

Go back to your boss and say this: “I realized I misunderstood what you were asking me earlier when you asked how the X work was going. I went back and took a look at my notes and realized the the consultants didn’t actually cover that with me, and I want to get trained on it as soon as possible. Do you think I could get a little more time with them for that, or is there someone else who can go over it with me?”

The good news here is that you didn’t say “Yes, I’ve been doing it.” You said, “I should take a look at how things are going with it.” It’s easier to turn that into “Whoops, I took that look and realized I need training.”

And yes, it’s true that when he asked earlier if you’d been trained on it, you said yes. That’s not ideal, but you wouldn’t be the first person to have just lost track of what you had and hadn’t covered so far during an intense training period. (And in your case, it sounds like it was just genuine confusion, not a deliberate lie.)

The most important thing here is to talk to him about it as soon as possible. Talk to him today. Because the longer he thinks this is being covered when it’s not, the more potential there is for real problems to result (or just for him to be much more concerned when he finally does learn about it).

But also — figure out why, when he asked you about it the second time, you panicked and didn’t tell him the truth. That’s not a helpful instinct to have, and it can really come back to bite you if it happens again. One time you can fix, but multiple times will worry your boss and potentially cause real problems for you and your work. And plus, it was unnecessary! It would have been fine to just say, “Oh no, I just realized that we didn’t finish covering that — I’ll need to call them and find out what I need to do.” That kind of thing happens, and it’s much, much better to be transparent when it does. So it’s important to figure out what led you to respond the way you did, dismantle whatever assumptions were in play that caused it (for example, that you’ll look incompetent if your boss sees that you’re not perfect), and shift your mindset to one where you truly believe that you’ll come across better — and do your job better — if you’re honest and transparent, even when you’ve made a mistake.

{ 66 comments… read them below }

  1. Ginger

    OP, it’s OK to not know how to do something. You just need to speak up in a timely manner, which you can totally do here. Don’t panic, it is fixable.

    Your boss knew you needed training so really it is the perfect time to identify any and all gaps of what you need to learn and even then, you will still keep learning and honing your skills. Keep the lines of communication about your training open with your boss and if you find other areas where you need help, speak up. Your boss wants you to succeed.

    1. Sloan Kittering

      Also I totally understand how, in the beginning, you don’t really understand the specifics of what someone is talking about. They say something about the llama groomers, and you did hear about the llama groomers, so you think you understand what they’re talking about and you say you’ve got it. Then it turns out there’s some other specific llama related task that you missed and now you look like a jerk. For me it’s part of the first-day firehose blur when words don’t seem to have specific meanings and all smear together …

      1. Hills to Die on

        Right–I thought lama grooming was the initial llama brushing versus the entire process of thinning out the undercoat, the nail trimming, the initial brushing as well as the final brushing. People understand that sort of thing and so will your boss.

  2. SherSher

    I fortunately learned early on, from a great boss, that if I brought an issue (especially where I had screwed up) along with a proposed solution, it all went better. Do as Allison says. It will very likely be fine.

    1. NotAnotherManager!

      +1

      We cover this in orientation – you will make a mistake at some point, so here’s what to do when it happens. We will work with you to get it resolved, we’ll figure out what went wrong, and we’ll do better next time.

      In my experience, the key driver on whether people want to work with you after a mistake is how you handle it. No one loves having to clean up a mess, but they feel much better about it when the person who made it is honest, proactive, and in there with a mop, too.

      1. SherSher

        Yes, owning it is very important. Also, not making a habit of it! (But we all make mistakes, as you note!)

        1. Yvette

          Owning it is very important. The only time I ever saw someone fired over a mistake was when they refused to admit to it (and trust me it was never a doubt), did nothing to help fix it, and left right on time while everyone else was still scrambling to recover from it.

        2. NotAnotherManager!

          Yep, you’re exactly right! The we-all-make-mistakes part is important, too. I share a couple of the worst mistakes I’ve made in my professional career and how I handled them (what I did right and wrong). I have done some things in a spectacularly bad way and would love to spare people that pain.

      2. fposte

        I really like the idea of covering this in orientation, and I’ll do this in future. It’s so much easier when the notion is already out there, so you’re not bringing it up for the first time when it’s a problem and you’re vulnerable.

      3. RNL

        I was told as a very very junior lawyer that every single lawyer makes mistakes, there is almost no mistake my boss cannot fix, and insurance is for the few she cannot. But she cannot fix mistakes she doesn’t know about and insurance doesn’t cover mistakes we hide.

        And now I tell my junior lawyers the same thing.

    2. Sloan Kittering

      That’s true, my father told me that on my first day in the work world – “your boss will appreciate you if you don’t just bring them problems, you also present possible solutions.” I still live by this advice!

      1. Antilles

        That’s excellent advice. And the real beauty is that it works really well even if your suggestions aren’t ultimately accepted. As long as your proposed solutions are fairly reasonable, the boss will typically appreciate your initiative even if he ends up choosing a different alternative.

        1. Jennifer Thneed

          So, my wife likes to say that the fastest way to find out information on the Net is not to ask a question, but rather to make a statement, because people will rush to correct you.

          (I can’t explain it well, but to me, this feels similar to how editing is easier than writing from scratch. It’s easier if you’ve got something to react to? It’s easier to have an opinion than an original thought?)

      2. NicoleK

        This is good advice. I try to bring the problem, possible solutions, and pros and cons of possible solutions to the boss.

      3. Hiring Mgr

        I agree in general, but sometimes it’s also ok to admit you don’t know what to do next and just ask for help. I only mention that because people might wait to bring it to their manager’s attention if they’re looking in vain for a solution .

  3. Amber Rose

    Looks like a shame avoidance cycle. “I didn’t do the thing and the longer it goes not done the worse I feel and the harder it is to face, so I’ll keep avoiding it, but then even more times passes and I feel even worse and it’s even harder to face…”

    You are not the only one to get stuck in one of these. I got stuck in two of them in my first few months at this job. The first one I got some support from the lovely folk on the Friday open thread, took it to my boss, and it was resolved with no fuss at all. The second one lasted almost a year and had a much more severe fallout when it came to light.

    Basically what I’m saying is: first, learn to recognize a shame avoidance cycle. Second, remember that however bad it feels now, it’ll be much worse if you don’t just deal with it head on. Third, you’re not the first person and you won’t be the last to do this, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Just treat it like any other work error: admit that you made a mistake and then say what you need to fix it.

    1. Hills to Die on

      I agree. I had this and still do a lesser extent. Once I realized (from an emotional perspective) that my boss is not my parent, I am not a child, and nobody will slap me across the face for not being perfect, it got a lot better. Practice in the working world helps too. I would like to say that nobody will verbally assault you at work for making a mistake, but we all know from reading AAM that is not necessarily the case. Still, adults have choices and you won’t have to endure being shamed or berated for not getting everything right. Best of luck to you, and please give us an update!

    2. RNL

      These cycles are so common. Remember, shame does not survive in the light. So I start by telling SOMEONE about them. I go home and tell my husband about it. Or tell a friend. Or tell someone anonymously on the internet. Sometimes you get good advice – but you always get the advantage of the shame shrivelling a little bit and fear of disclosing dissipating a bit.

  4. Sloan Kittering

    I soooo feel you OP. I still have the instinct to lie and cover up mistakes instead of being open and up front about them. I have no idea where it comes from. I’m not even a perfectionist in other parts of my life, I’m just very sensitive to disappointing people, I think (?). It has bitten me several times before I started to learn that, even if people are a little mad at the time, it’s much better to be upfront about these things. I am still learning it TBH.

    1. ThankYouRoman

      In my experience people tend to want to cover mistakes so they’re not scolded or punished. It can be from childhood often, if you went to Catholic school or had strict unforgiving parents, etc. I internalized a lot due to crappy outlandish teachers myself. Saying you messed up resulted in punishment, no matter how honest the mistake was. Ick.

      1. Sloan Kittering

        Yeah I appreciate Hills to Die On’s comment above, that this thinking may be coming from still seeing yourself as a child and your boss as a parent. My parents weren’t strict but I think I was always so terrified of disappointing them in any way, and that sort of carried over into my work life. But I’m working on it :P

        1. ThankYouRoman

          Truly just knowing it’s a weakness to work on is the biggest step!

          I’m lucky for me, it got better by just forcing myself to do it. Don’t turtle when scared, once you see a positive reaction a few times, it gets so much easier.

          Now when I get a crappy response, my internal reaction turns to “well you’re just a power tripping a-hole, aren’t you?” It’s so much easier to dust yourself off once you’re not petrified of the possible fall!

        2. Ego Chamber

          Don’t ever underestimate the psychological damage leveled by shitty workplaces that intentionally set up a parent/child dynamic and control workers by means of guilt-trips and scoldings with full-on Mom Voice(TM).

          Call Center Hell was the weirdest thing for me, because I’ve worked a lot of retail and no one ever did this, and I stopped responding to guilt-trips from actual family over a decade ago. The first time a manager tried to pull that routine I was just like “What… what are you doing?” o_O

      2. Kelly L.

        Yep. My dad gave lip service to “if you tell me you did xyz bad thing/are struggling in class/etc., instead of me finding out later, I won’t be mad,” but in practice, it meant he got mad twice: once when I told him, and again when the external consequences happened (like a bad grade on my report card). So I quickly learned that if I didn’t tell him, I’d only get one lecture–when the external consequences happened–and maybe even avoid the lecture altogether if I somehow managed to salvage the situation without him finding out. This…is not the best coping strategy for work, as I learned later.

    2. Caroline

      Came here to comment the exact same thing! I think for me it is definitely around not wanting to disappoint people. My natural instinct is to not even ask questions because I think it will make me look stupid (weirdly, I never think other people are stupid for asking questions! Thanks brain). I think the main thing you can do is acknowledge to yourself that you do it, and then try not to any more.

    3. HannaSpanna

      I totally do the same thing, and love that Alison addressed it as theme. It is encouraging that I’m not the only one, but have now am picking up the challenge to stop, which is easier when I know I’m not alone.

    4. Karen from Finance

      Also came to comment this. I understand where you’re coming from, OP, and it’s specially scary to admit to not knowing something, specially in situations where you have all these new responsabilities and you feel like so much is expected of you. I can relate.

      Your boss probably expects a period of adjustment (he’d be irresponsible not to). Now is the time to get the clarification you need. It will be fine, but do speak up.

      Good luck!

    5. CM

      It took me YEARS to get over this, and it’s great that the OP is learning it early!

      It is so common to panic and cover up when you’ve done something wrong. And it’s invariably SO much better for everyone involved to admit your mistake as soon as possible, ideally with a plan for rectifying it. Your boss may be surprised, but I’m certain that he’s come across this before with new employees. If you have the conversation now, it will show that you’re mature enough to own up to your mistakes, and that he can trust you to bring issues to his attention.

  5. ooo

    But also — figure out why, when he asked you about it the second time, you panicked and didn’t tell him the truth. That’s not a helpful instinct to have, and it can really come back to bite you if it happens again.

    Oof, OP — I used to do this instinctively too, possibly as a result of growing up with a VERY ANGRY mother who could explode when I told her the truth if she didn’t like it. I felt — and still feel, to some extent — a lot of anxiety and shame over getting caught in a small mistake, and developed a habit of lying or being misleading instead of just admitting my error and fixing it. Obviously, I can’t reliably extrapolate anything from the single instance mentioned in your letter — but if this is something you do habitually, a little therapy to address the root issues might not be a bad idea.

    1. HannaSpanna

      Same here. Totally instinctively, snap reaction (as a defense against the irrational reaction to the small mistake.) When at work, it was like as soon as I had said it, my brain would go ‘but….why did you lie…’ Took a while to overcome (was a recurrent theme in therapy) and still not perfect.

    2. sweet potatoes

      Oh I do this too, and it’s for the same reason. It’s such a though cycle to break. I’ve gotten better at it, but man I still catch myself doing it.

    3. RD

      I have this instinct too, and I didn’t even go to Catholic school or have particularly putnative parents. It’s just a thing that people do, especially early in their careers.

  6. Gabriella

    Congratulations on getting promoted! I agree with Alison’s answer here you can fix this situation easily! Don’t be discouraged. If you find yourself in this kind of situation again don’t be afraid to take a step back, breathe and answer in a professional way that also states the truth. If it’s an awkward time then ask for quick meeting with your boss later.

    1. Sloan Kittering

      Yeah I have to remind myself that bosses who train new employees have probably seen way worse things all the time. What’s a big deal to you OP won’t be a big deal to your boss if you’re pro-active about it. The worst would be for the boss to realize that you haven’t been doing it and have been telling her that you have, so that’s the scenario you need to head off and it’s going to be NBD.

  7. ThankYouRoman

    You’re still new enough that this should be easy to forgive! Please speak with your boss. I have had to go from “oh right that task, I’ll check on it” only to need to go acknowledge that nope, don’t know how actually.

    I’ve seen tasks totally dropped because nobody bothers to find out how. Those people I’m annoyed with and glad they’re mostly gone, sigh. The key isn’t to beat yourself up or feel scared when it pops up. That’s hard to fight through but with a few stingers like this one, you’ll feel better over time:)

  8. Takes10SecondsToProcessaQuestion

    “Hey, I realized earlier I think I misunderstood you, can you clarify what you meant?” – is a sentence that works wonders, I have processing issues especially auditorally, so a lot of times when a boss is talking at me especially if talking fast or over the phone, I’ll be like “oh yeah totally! Got it!” and then an hour later my brain finally goes “that is NOT what they said/meant”. Being honest about it and just presenting it lightly, not guilty but an honest mistake, has never really backfired on me when I’ve had to do it. Something that helps cut down on this? Get in the habit of at the end of conversations that involve questions/instructions by repeating back what they said slightly rephrased, that confirms you’re on the same page. Don’t do it ALL the time but usually if I feel unsure about something that fixes the problems and it lets people know you’re listening.

    Also, if this start happening a lot, see if they are phrasing questions clearly to you. When I first started out a guy who I had to work with would always ask “Have you HEARD of [concept/thing]” they were usually pretty common IT type things (my jobs was not vaguely IT adjacent) so I’d go “Yeah I’ve heard of it.” And then they’d expect me to be able to explain it, in detail. No, I’ve HEARD of that IT concept but I don’t know about it. I can probably give you a generally summary of it but I’m not a expert. He even complained to my boss I tried to pretend to know about stuff I don’t. I explained what he was doing and there was just a kind of eye roll from my boss like “oh yeah he does that”. I just got used to saying “nope” even if I had heard of it, made me feel stupid but it got him to leave well enough alone with the GOTCHA.

    1. rldk

      That old coworker sounds extremely unpleasant to work with – that sort of weird challenging thing is so irritating and condescending, and clearly just done for the purpose of making him feel superior.

      But I do really like that phrasing for checking in about misheard/misunderstood things. I do the same, and have also sent similar phrases in email after a call or conversation because I do not process information perfectly when heard versus read. It’s always been accepted well!

    2. Mostly Anonymous Business Student

      Oh man, my business school professors are really bad about this. They’ll be like “Have any of you ever heard of a chocolate teapot?” and students will nod or say yes, and they’ll call on one of them: “OK Jane, so how does a chocolate teapot work?” And usually the student will say “Well, I’ve heard of the name, but I can’t explain what it does.” (And, hmm, maybe that’s why it’s on the syllabus for this class!)

      So then the next day, when the professor asks “Has anyone ever heard of a vanilla teapot?”, nobody says anything…and he’ll go “What, you’ve never heard of them? Come on, guys, are you even awake today?”

      (Classroom management by shame, woohoo! :eyeroll: )

  9. Skeeter

    For LW whose boss is requiring employees to pay fines when they are late, what is he doing with the cash????

  10. Ella

    When there’s been a mistake or a mixup it’s always better to catch it as early as possible, present the issue clearly and concisely, and then also present potential solutions or a plan of action. It took me a really long time into my career to realize that it only makes things worse if you try to ignore an issue and hope it goes away or, alternatively, spend more time self-flagellating over mistakes instead of calmly working to fix them. It’s an important lesson, though, both for getting ahead in your career and for not letting small mistakes spiral out of control.

  11. A beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox

    I have done this so many times and with such silly things. I sometimes get so panicky when I don’t know how to do a thing that I won’t admit it because I become terrified that it’s a very common thing that everyone knows how to do, or a thing that I *should* know how to do, and then I tell myself that I can google it & figure it out. Then I internalize it and it becomes “I’m a fraud, can’t do anything & I am a horrible human who does not deserve a job and should just disappear from the earth” And it goes there faaaaast. Just reading this letter made my anxiety go up a little.

    Thanks for the reminder that other people go through this as well. I’m working through it by reminding myself that it’s a well-used pathway which my brain has developed in times of stress, and that my thoughts are not necessarily true. The best way to circumvent it is to admit up front that I need clarification or that I would appreciate more training because I really want to do a good job. There is some other great advice on here from the comments which I plan on utilizing. Good vibes to you – LW. I hope things go smoothly for you.

    1. Armchair Analyst

      I know what you mean!
      I am currently doing a job and a task has come up that is SO *NOT* my job and I’ve been trying to learn it and keep asking for help so much, and I’m beginning to wonder if, you know, maybe I’m an idiot? But I keep asking my bosses and they say I’m doing the right thing, so I’m trying to keep my head in that space.

      We’re doing ok! We’ll get through this!

      1. TechWorker

        One of Alison’s points recently on ‘how to handle feedback of ‘be more confident’’ was like ‘if you don’t know something, do you say ‘I’m not sure, I’ll check and get back to you’ or do you panic and flounder’. This literally took me like 2 years to learn (why did no one tell me it was acceptable not to know on the spot, lol) – and the same is true here – you look *way* more confident by calming saying ‘I’m not sure how to do that, can you point me in the right direction?’ Or ‘I’m not sure how to do that, but I’ll have a go and come back if I have questions’ rather than ‘yes, sure’ and then screwing it up because you have no clue :D

        1. TechWorker

          It also took me a good two years to grasp what’s acceptable to not know (actually, most things, if you’ve never worked on them!). In my defence not helped by the first person I trained who if I didn’t know something immediately would then discount anything I said on it afterwards (once I’d remembered/looked it up)…

  12. Erika22

    This is so timely, as I’m still fairly new at my job and have already made/discovered errors that got worse because I didn’t bring them to someone’s attention early enough. I just have to tell myself that, yes, I can spend a minute and ride out the wave of panic, but then I need to begin the process of correcting the mistake, because that’s the only thing that actually makes the panic/sick feeling in my stomach go away. And if you calmly present the problem and the steps youve taken to your boss, it usually goes over pretty smoothly. There are very few mistakes that can’t be fixed, and no one does everything perfectly.

  13. Tammy

    You’re a human being, and you’re capable of making mistakes, LW. This is true of all of us. The important thing is that when you realize you’ve made a mistake, you own it, and you either fix it (if you can do that on your own) or surface it and ask for help fixing it (if you can’t).

    When I first started in my first role at CurrentCompany, I made a mistake which had a pretty big impact (it took down part of our software platform for almost an hour) because I didn’t understand the ramifications of a task I’d been asked to do. When the alarm went off that said the system was down, though, I spoke up and told my boss “I think it could be down because I was doing this thing?” We stopped the thing and restored service. I was feeling really badly about the mistake, and it really helped to hear my boss say “we all make mistakes, but the important thing is speaking up and owning them so we can fix them quickly. We don’t waste time on ‘blamestorming’ on this team, because once we’ve figured out who’s fault it is that the thing is broken, the thing is still broken.”

    On the other side of the coin, I had to terminate someone once who violated a pretty important company policy with severe potential consequences for breaches. But I didn’t terminate them because they’d violated the policy. I terminated them because they’d tried to cover up the violation, and I couldn’t take the chance that they’d do that again in the future.

    Talk to your boss, OP. Acknowledge that you don’t know how to do the thing, and that you misunderstood the question, and let your team help you fix the problem. You’ll solve the problem, and your boss will appreciate your accountability and honesty.

  14. Bulbasaur

    Regarding Alison’s final paragraph: depending on the level of trust you have with your boss, this might be something you could reasonably ask for help with. You do that by admitting that you misled him/didn’t tell him as soon as you could have, saying that you aren’t sure why and are unhappy with how you handled it, and you’d like to add a development goal around dealing with your problems promptly and transparently.

    Whether this would make sense or not depends on the kind of boss you have, how good they are at coaching, how willing they are to do it etc. But I definitely know plenty of managers who would be happy to help you work on something like this. Nobody is perfect, but being aware of the problems you have and willing to work on them actually takes you a lot of the way towards the goal.

    1. Sarah

      I can see wanting an employee to say they are ashamed of how they handled a situation like this if this had been an ongoing failure to do a task for months and months with repeated check-ins and confirmations from the employee that everything was fine. That’s an integrity problem.

      But honestly, as a boss, I wouldn’t see anything that happened here as an integrity problem, and in some ways I think I’d actually be a little weirded out if a new employee of mine treated it as a serious breach of ethics that they needed coaching on, because it would make me worry that they were going to work themselves into a tizzy about small things instead of just asking for help when they need it (no matter how long after the fact they realize they need help!) I expect new employees to not have a 100% grasp of the job, and to have to go back and reinforce (or learn for the first time!) parts of the job that they may not have grasped in their training.

      1. Bulbasaur

        I wouldn’t suggest framing it as a serious breach of ethics (I agree it’s not). But it’s fairly common in a lot of workplaces to have a list of things that you would like to improve on, things you could do better, skills you would like to gain etc. and to work on them with your manager and review them periodically. Frequently this is called “goal setting,” is mandatory, and results in a lot of uncomfortable silences as people try to think of something they can put down that is (a) useful and (b) achievable. Rather than try to do this all at once on an annual or semiannual basis, I’ve found it’s most effective if you can recognize in the moment when you identify an opportunity for improvement or something that hasn’t gone the way you wanted, and build a list of relevant topics over time. This post struck me as an example that might fall into this category, and from Alison’s final paragraph it sounds like she agrees.

        As I said, it would depend on the office culture and the specific boss. If the culture is to keep this kind of thing to yourself to work on and only ask for coaching or log a development goal in the case of serious performance problems, then I’d keep quiet.

  15. Sarah

    I totally resonate with that reaction. It seems like you’re really focused on feeling like you LIED about something or were dishonest – I used to feel the same when I was in a similar situation, and I actually don’t think it’s a helpful way to think about at all. You have not lied, and you have not been a dishonest employee. You’ve just been a human being. Framing this in your head as a “falsehood” is putting waaayyy too much moral weight on what is, essentially, a kind of dumb phrasing in the moment to your boss and a training task you need to go over.

    Because of that, I wouldn’t think of it as trying to cover or explain your statement like Allison suggests, personally. I wouldn’t even worry about what exactly you said – unless you said it like a billion times (like yup boss, I’m checking on that issue over and over) you really didn’t say much of anything at all! I think trying to say something like “like I said I went and checked on it and then I REALIZED it was a problem…” I mean, that’s actually a little MORE dishonest than your original panicky reaction, and there’s just no need for it! I think it comes off as fast talking, when really, there’s nothing to be ashamed of at all here. I’d just state that you need more training on the issue, and that’s that.

    You are human. You are not required to understand and respond to every single thing your boss says with the perfectly phrased response in real time and get the right answer every single time. It is perfectly fine to come back to a conversation when your boss has a free moment and say “hey, I realize when we talked about llama grooming that I really didn’t get as firm a grasp as I thought I did on what I’m supposed to do with that task. I haven’t been doing it for the last few weeks in the blur of starting up, but obviously I need to get up to speed on it ASAP. Do you have 10 minutes to explain it to me/can I meet with Wanda about this/where can I find the info I need in the employee handbook/[insert whatever the logical way for you to gain the knowledge you need here]”. If your boss is even halfway reasonable, I doubt his head will even go towards the concepts of “dishonesty” that you’re worrying about here. This is really normal.

    I used to do this all the time, and spin myself up about how I’d LIED to my boss when caught off guard about a task, because I’d pushed off the issue and said something like “Y’know I’ve got to look into that” instead of immediately mea culpa-ing and laying bare my lack of knowledge in the moment. I just went through all this shame and guilt and what felt like “covering up” for my HUGE MISTAKE for things that were very, very small misunderstandings or just things that I needed more training on.

    But it got better when I became a manager, because seeing MYSELF as a boss/authority figure It was the first time I’d ever contemplated that probably my parents and my shitty boss were the outliers, and that most bosses are perfectly reasonable and understand that people (particularly people who are new!) have lots of questions that come to them at different times, and that they don’t have some sort of robotic 100% absorption of everything everyone says – nor did I need them to. Not ONCE did I feel like my interns who came back to me and said “hey, I thought I understood this, I didn’t – can you help me” were acting in bad faith. You are almost certainly the only person in this situation who sees what has happened here as moral failing.

  16. TootsNYC

    When I was a kid, I broke a plate that I knew my mother treasured. (My dad had given us a lecture about treating it carefully because our mother valued it for sentimental reasons.)

    It was standing against the back wall of the cabinet, and it fell over when I carefully put the dishes away. I hid it at the bottom of the trash can because I didn’t want to get in trouble.

    My mother found it. And was furious, natch.

    Once I had confessed, sobbing, my mother said: “I was mad because you hid it. Accidents happen, even when you’re careful; and even sometimes if you’re careless, I understand that people make mistakes. I promise to not be angry if you come and TELL me about it.”

    I think I got a mild form of post-traumatic stress (the military, I learned, doesn’t use “disorder”), because when I screw up, I *have* to tell. I can’t not.

    And surprisingly, I’ve never actually gotten in trouble when I did. And the earlier I tell, the less anxiety I have.

  17. Tetrarch

    In my first career job, we had a staff meeting after I’d been there about two months. During the staff meeting the boss asked everyone, “If I told you to go to the supply room and get the equipment to do [job task], who here doesn’t know exactly what they’d need to get?”. After a couple of seconds silence I put my hand up because hey, I didn’t know, and I’d only been there a couple of months and it hadn’t been covered yet in my training.

    As soon as I put my hand up, about half the other people in the staff meeting admitted that they also didn’t really know how to do this thing. Some of them had been in the job for years.

    It taught me that plenty of people are pretending to know more than they actually do, acknowledging gaps in your knowledge just enables you to learn new things, and it’s better to speak up early!

    Good luck OP – a brief uncomfortable conversation with your boss will relieve you of all this anxiety you’re currently carrying around about this task.

    1. Grinch

      This so much! I will admit that I also try to cover up things I haven’t done yet, or don’t know how to do yet. Probably deep down it is because I try to present the best front for my boss, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I don’t know something I should–and I don’t always have the best judgment of when I “should” know something. So my instinct is to be vague, say I’ll confirm something and then respond, hedge my responses with “I think…”, and rely on situations like Tetrach described above: listen in when they train newbies and see if I can conceal how much I don’t know for as long as I can.

  18. Birch

    OP, you assumed you’d get trained on that particular task, and it sounds like at first when your boss asked you if you’d been trained on it, you interpreted it in the moment as him asking if you’re familiar with the idea, not necessarily that you are an expert on actually doing it. I can totally see that misunderstanding happening! Just tell him you misunderstood and thought you’d have a more thorough training on it, but then you didn’t and you sort of lost track of it in the midst of everything else. Now that it’s come up, you can request a thorough training. That’s just being honest, not avoidant. Don’t grovel when you present that information, just present it as something that simply slipped through the cracks and with the attitude of “now that it’s been brought to my attention, let’s get to work on it.” Good luck!

  19. Bowserkitty

    Eep, this sounds similar to a situation I have been in at a previous job. I wish I had spoken up earlier!! Good luck OP and let us know how it goes.

  20. zaracat

    While it’s good to work on your own issues around difficulty speaking up and therapy is very helpful here, I’ve also found that the level of fear and anxiety associated with bringing up an error or admitting I don’t know something to be a good indicator of whether I really want to work with any given team leader over the longer term. The ones who react badly tend to be difficult to work with in other ways as well: using predominantly negative feedback and criticism to shape team behaviour, shifting blame for mistakes, and acting aggressively when under pressure. My job involves working very, very closely as part of a team in the health sector so an inability to speak up potentially has serious safety implications, and there are a LOT of team leaders whose poor interpersonal skills get excused because of their high level of technical skills. To my mind they need both skill sets to be truly good at their job. Thankfully my position as a freelancer working under an informal verbal agreement gives me the choice of who I work with (declining to work with someone has other implications, but they aren’t relevant here). Employees aren’t so lucky.

  21. Sail On, Sailor

    “That’s not a helpful instinct to have.” As a manager I love Alison’s advice in the last paragraph. So helpful for employees to understand that.

  22. knitcrazybooknut

    I know this feeling really well. For me, it comes from interactions with my family of origin. When any question is followed by a complete interrogation, and every weakness is exploited and used as a tool to hurt you, you learn to immediately reassure anyone around you that you have it covered. This may not be the case for you, but I used to panic, too, at any question. I had to learn that not everyone is out to get me. I can see times in my life where I panicked or burned a bridge rather than admit I needed help with something. There are more than zero instances where I figured that I didn’t deserve help, or I wasn’t worth helping at all, and I should just walk away. Unfinished college courses, friendships, roommate situations — all lost because I couldn’t ask for help.

    Better at this now, but it took a long time. That adrenaline rush of panic does go away. Again, I’m not saying this is you, but I wanted to share my perspective.

  23. chi type

    This sounds like something I would do. I have a bad habit of just sort of smiling and nodding when I don’t know what someone is talking about instead of just saying I don’t understand. I think it’s just the (minor) embarrassment of having to admit I don’t know something. I get socially anxious in all kinds of situations and I think this is just one more (sigh) but I need to get over it cause it only gets more embarrassing when you finally have to admit you had no clue. Haha

  24. Falling Diphthong

    I was thinking about this letter today as I dealt with a frustrating medical matter: The companies to which I am most loyal are those where at some point something went wrong, and they really took responsibility and worked to fix it. Moreso than companies where nothing has gone wrong so far. I think a similar thing can apply to employees/bosses/coworkers–it’s the people who were able to recognize something had gone wrong and not dodge, not hope no one noticed, but acknowledge what had happened and fix it that you most want to work with.

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