how can I recover from a huge, fireable mistake?

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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 96 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    A friend of mine, a stellar employee, made a big mistake once. He handles a ton of budget stuff for projects and misprojected on something so they had a considerable shortfall. Since he works with something as quantifiable as money, it was easy to see that the overall economics were vastly in his favor–he’s saved his unit considerably more money over time than his mistake had cost them. While not all of our work can be boiled down so neatly, that’s the kind of human economics that will be looked at, and if you’re a good employee, it’s likely you’ve brought more value than your mistake took away.

    1. Antilles*

      This is a point that good managers and good companies keep in mind – yes, you need the employee to realize their mistake and the consequences, but you also need to remember the bigger picture.

      1. Busy*

        Well, to me, it matters more what Allison says, and here is why:

        Story time.
        I had this direct report who everyone loved. Lets say he was responsible for ensuring all Llamas were disease free before being released to the Llama sheerers. Since he took over the position, the costs associated with diseased Llamas decreased and production of Llama shirts increased. He also worked with customer claims effectively lowering Llama haired shirt complaint costs. Yay, right?

        No. Not even close. He cut costs and upped production by allowing almost every disease through. He felt he had the authority and education to make that determination (he did not. Not at all). People ended up getting hurt. The company was sued by another company we manufactured for and by the customers. The company was also put on warning from the federal authorities. And all that money he was saving in complaints? He, again, felt he was authorized to take apart Llama sweaters to send to customers to try to repair themselves. Lots of things happened that again resulted in the company having to replace entire Llama shirts.

        I had inhereted this guy. It wasn;t until we instituted audits that we knew how bad it was. By then it was too late. He let AAAAALLLLLLL that disease out into the world. Had been for literally years.

        And never once did he ever EVER understand his mistakes – and that right there is what got him fired. Mistakes happen, right? But it was his horribly, obvious poor judgement without understanding why got him fired.

        And even if he did save money? Making a mistake that big without understanding how and why it happened is literally why they fire people. Firing isn’t for punishment. Firing is for removing someone who you feel you cannot trust to do the job. And if judgement is questioned that badly no matter how rock star you are you should be fired.

        I could easily find someone to replace that guy.

        1. fposte*

          But that isn’t somebody who’s providing more economic capital than he’s spending–that’s why you could so easily replace him. You can be saving some money and still not be worth it as an employee; conversely, you could make a very expensive mistake and still be worth it.

        2. BRR*

          I’m with you on understanding the mistake, although I don’t think understanding the mistake and looking at monetary value are mutually exclusive. One of my coworkers makes tons of errors on the same task. At this point, I’m not sure what’s worse; do they not notice or do they notice and aren’t doing anything. If they aren’t understanding these mistakes, which are tied to the foundation of their entire role, I don’t think that’s fixable. Of course it’s not good if they see things and aren’t doing anything about them.

        3. Antilles*

          I agree that the guy should have been replaced, but I don’t think that’s quite the same situation as the point that fposte and I (also Alison) were making: Good employees can make mistakes, so you should look at the bigger picture rather than overreact to a single ‘a human was human’ screw-up.
          In your case, the big picture and economic evaluation actually point towards firing the guy for his screw-up – even if his raw costs were down, the actual cost (including customer goodwill, lawsuits, federal authorities/regulators, replacement costs, etc) was almost certainly in the negative. He’s not a good employee and doesn’t get the same leeway as an otherwise good/excellent employee who screwed up once.

          1. Busy*

            Actually, what you are fposte are making isn;t exactly what the point Alison is making, and you are misunderstanding what I am saying.

            Alison’s point about firing is not about punishment. It is about whether you can trust someone to do a job. That means, both in my piont and in Alison’s, that big mistakes don’t mean firing someone. Now what you, or more so what fposte is contending, is that a person who contributes Great Big Things shouldn’t be fired if they don’t understand the why’s and how of Great Big Mistake as long as they have done these other Great Big Things. No. You literally only ever should be firing people when you feel like they cannot perform the job anymore, and judgement is a key part of that. Big mistakes are not fireable offenses ONLY when the person is a stellar employee AND understand the hows and whys of what they did. And I apologize if that is what you mean by your post, but it is not coming across like that – a person is no longer stellar if they cannot see how badly they screwed up or why and how that is bad.

            1. Bubbleon*

              I didn’t read anything in fposte’s comment to imply that the friend hadn’t understood his big mistake or that it was only their “Great Big Things” that had kept them there, just that in finance it’s a little easier to show the math of those benefits to the company than it might be in other industries.

              1. fposte*

                Yes, exactly. Of course he understood the magnitude of the mistake and apologized appropriately–he is, as I said, a stellar employee, and that’s what stellar employees do. His manager also understood the magnitude of his value, which was considerably greater.

                I guess I’m not clear, Busy, on what you think should be different in my friend’s situation.

    2. hbc*

      Yes, and I would even say that in a lot of cases, if an employee outside the C-suite can lose more value than they’ve brought in, there’s a systemic problem that contributed to the incident. Not all the time, but often. You shouldn’t be letting the junior sales guy commit to prices on systems he doesn’t understand, you should have a second set of eyes approve transactions over $X, and you’re asking for problems if you regularly have midnight deadlines where people are throwing stuff together at 11:55 high on adrenaline and caffeine.

  2. Bubbleon*

    Oof, I could’ve written a similar letter to this one just last week. We’re still finding small things that need to be cleaned up from the mess I made, but I sent an email to managers with all of the points Alison laid out within a few hours of realizing it had happened last week and I don’t think it’ll ultimately be too bad for me professionally. Ultimately, I’ve already called myself an idiot enough that no one else feels it needs to be pointed out and explained that the circumstances were unique but avoidable, everyone has sort of agreed that it was a human error that sucks but we’re all moving ahead on how to fix any long term damage instead of dwelling on what happened.

    1. Bubbleon*

      (All that said I’ll definitely check in on a Friday thread if I jinx myself with this post)

    2. BookishMiss*

      I’ve been there too, at a time where my brain was Not Behaving Itself. I was direct and accountable with my boss, including steps being taken to get my neurotransmitters under control, which went a very long way. She watched me for a while, but ultimately holding myself accountable, having a solid plan for not doing the Thing again, and open communication, plus solid job performance before and after, mitigated any major damage.

    3. zora*

      Omg are you me? I just had a terrible week last week, too! This whole post is such good timing for me, I have been trying to remind myself of all of these things, but the repetition is really helping.

      My boss was obviously worried in the moment, but since then she hasn’t brought it up, and seems to still trust me to be good at my job. It is so hard learning not to dwell though!

    4. Anita Brayke*

      What the hell WAS going on last week? I messed up a bunch of small things. Luckily, they just cost me time, but man! That was a rough one!

  3. RJ the Newbie*

    I had some serious concerns at my old job about the work being done by a junior project accountant, but I left before I had concrete evidence. My former co-worker has been cleaning up her many, many mistakes for almost a year now as she billed projects incorrectly, misclassified services, entered receipts incorrectly, etc. At the time, she was thought of as the ‘golden child’ for her skills in kissing up to management were exceptional. In accounting? Not so much. Had her supervisor known (or cared to know) she would have been fired. Her mistakes cost over a million net.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I have actually had personal tantrums over the horrific errors I’ve found from that kind of prior accountant nonsense. My old boss went from pages worth of journal adjustments from the CPA to half a page of the regular ending closings after I came on. He was so excited and I had to say “You know this is because the person before was inept, right?” and he just gave me the sheepish boyish look that said “I know but I’m focusing on how much I appreciate it being fixed.”

      1. RJ the Newbie*

        No one. I was actually reprimanded for asking that her work be checked when I found an error with a payment application she had done. I have twenty years experience in billing/project accounting and she had one.

    2. Debits and credits for the win*

      I’ve made a whole career out of cleaning up after bad accountants.

      Don’t get mad. It’s job security!

  4. animaniactoo*

    I once made a $10,000 dollar mistake 4 times in a row. I was a stellar employee. The agreement was that I was clearly burned out and badly needed my upcoming vacation.

    About a decade or so later, I made a single $35,000 dollar mistake. I’m not quite as stellar an employee as I was then, but I’m pretty good. And it turned out to be correctable without spending any money.

    Huge fireable mistakes are often viewed in context. There is “this can never ever ever happen” and there is “man that was rough, but unless you do this kind of stuff regularly or are a recent hire or have other significant issues as an employee – it happens.” It sounds like you’re in the latter category and the only thing that might pull you out of it if you’re there is if you try to lay the blame at someone else’s door. Owning the mistake completely helps mitigate a lot of the managerial/ownership aggravation, because it means that as an employee, you are trustworthy and reliable. That counts for a lot.

    1. fposte*

      And I don’t know about the OP’s error, but a lot of times a sequence had to occur for an error to have a consequence–the original mistake got made but the two checking phases from other teams missed it, that kind of thing (the old Swiss cheese theory of error). In that case it can be hard to effectively calibrate your own culpability–it’s tempting to either take on all the guilt or shove it all off, when in reality it’s a shared situation.

      1. mourning mammoths*

        Indeed. I am responsible for catching the errors of others before they cost us money. Thing is, I’m only in the middle of the food chain, so my insistence on following the rules is often dismissed or downplayed. I don’t have the ultimate responsibility, but I am the cog in the wheel that has the most expertise on the activities and rules we should follow. We have a surprise audit upcoming to catch these errors. I have mentally earmarked $100,000 that will either 1. be blamed on me, due to my expertise and ‘I don’t remember we decided to do it like that!’ or 2. the blame will be spread amongst the team. Or maybe even 3. nobody will really care, cost of doing business. Remains to be seen. Did I mention we’re a small non-profit, and my job is tied to total cash flow in the account this would be repaid from? So, yeah. The reassurance in this thread is genuinely helpful to me right now.

    2. Blue*

      Yeah, I’ve made one truly terrible mistake in my career thus far (knock on wood), and it was when I was so burned out and overworked I could barely think straight. Between that, the fact that I’d been a very strong employee for a number of years, and me addressing the situation almost exactly as Alison recommends, my boss didn’t even chastise me for it. I felt terrible and was really nervous to tell him about the mistake but he was just like, “Ok. Sounds like you have it handled, but let me know if anything comes up and you need my help.” I was very grateful to him for that!

    3. kneadmeseymour*

      Yeah, a reasonable employer isn’t going to be looking to assign punishment, just to figure out what went wrong. If it turns out that what went wrong is that an employee is a seriously bad fit for their position, that is one possibility, but when two otherwise stellar employees mess up, I don’t think that’s going to be the first conclusion. Probably it points to a deeper issue.

  5. Atlanta*

    Alison’s advice in the Inc. link is bang on. If your boss is a good one, all that really matters is that you own the mistake, try to help fix its consequences if possible, and try to make sure it never happens again.

    I made a similar mistake when I was a first year (very junior) attorney. I copied something from a brief we had already filed to include in another brief. That was expected and OK, but what I didn’t do was check that the stuff I copied had not already been criticized in the jurisdiction I filed it. It had been and our opponent used that against it. I agonized over that mistake as soon as I found out about it, got help from a second year at the firm (still junior but a little senior to me) and went to my boss the moment I could to tell her what I’d done, why I’d done it and what I was going to do to make sure I didn’t do it again. My boss was amazing about it. All she said was “I bet you’ll never do that again,” and we moved on.

    People can be surprising in a really positive way. Even 15 years later I’ve never forgotten how good she was about it, and I’ve tried to be the same way to my own junior people when they make mistakes.

    1. Weegie*

      Agreed. Back in the mists of time, I was indirectly responsible for crashing the entire computer network for our nationwide organisation, which meant nobody in client-facing roles could do any work for about a day. It was actually the fault of an equally junior colleague who used a program I had written but hadn’t fully tested (he hadn’t realised that) but nobody took us to task over it, other than to let us know it had happened. If there was any blame, our bosses took it, and the attitude was mostly one of ‘the computers are down – well, I suppose we better fix it’. They didn’t even ask us to fix it; they just rolled everything back to where it had been the day before. I guess we were protected by being on the lowest rung of the hierarchy.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        A year or so before I was hired, the department manager reformatted a hard drive instead of a floppy disk.
        When I expressed worry about getting milli and micro mixed up, I was reassured that nothing would ever be THAT spectacular, unless I somehow started a fire in my cubicle. Strangely reassuring to hear.

        1. TardyTardis*

          This reminds me of the Great Popcorn Incident (the microwave at home I use is old and underpowered. The microwave at work is modern and more highly powered. Guess, oh, guess what happened. But we needed a fire drill anyway).

  6. Hiring Mgr*

    If possible, can you shift all the blame to the other co-worker? (Yes that’s a joke..) Seriously, as AAM says just be proactive about owning it and understanding what happened and how you’ve ensured it won’t happen again.

  7. aunt bop*

    I made a huge mistake years ago. The powers that be wanted to fire me but my boss went to bat for me. It ended up in a 2 week unpaid suspension for violating the code of conduct. My boss was upset and ended up leaving for another job. Then I was left to deal with a less than friendly group in senior management. I never lived it down and ended up leaving about six months later. A few years later, I realized the field was not for me and after a lay off (due to the recession), I ended up changing fields and I’m much happier.

  8. Autumnheart*

    I had a similar incident a few years ago, where I unintentionally created a vulnerability that could’ve resulted in something on the order of the Target security breach. And worse, the VP of IT caught it and cc:ed me, my boss, and a couple other high-level people. I thought I would be fired for sure (and I wouldn’t have blamed them one bit if they had) but I essentially did what Alison recommended, and it blew over fairly quickly. It helped that the system in question was being decommissioned anyway and replaced with a different tool.

    So, you’re not the only one, and it doesn’t mean you’re an idiot or bad at your job. People make mistakes. All you can do about it at this point is to absorb the lesson and make sure it doesn’t happen again, which would prove that you *are* good at your job. Tons of people don’t get that far when they screw up.

  9. Lily in NYC*

    I made a 50K mistake when I worked in journalism. It was late on a Friday and I didn’t notice that a story about an airplane crash had moved to a different location in the magazine right before we went to print and was now next to an airline ad. Yikes! It was my responsibility to make sure we didn’t have ad conflicts (example, car ads have to be 6 pages apart from each other, you can’t have a jewelry ad near a story about domestic violence, etc). We had to give the airline a free premium ad, which was around 50K. Here’s the weird part – I didn’t get in trouble, not even a tiny bit of it. My boss said it was her responsibility as well and that we both messed up. I had already been there 5 years and had a good reputation and it was the first and only mistake I made like that. I felt so awful (but relieved). I know this is an old post but I wonder if OP got reprimanded.

    1. wendelenn*

      I recently saw on Facebook a picture of a program for TITANIC: The Musical. With an ad for a cruise line on the bottom part of the cover.

      1. Media Monkey*

        honestly, working in advertising that kind of thing happens often enough that you start to think it gets done delibberately by a flat planner having a laugh. just about everyone has a story about when it happened to them (although some are likely apocryphal, such as the one about an ad for British Gas – the UK national domestic gas provider – running in a tv documentary about concentration camps)

    2. Midwest Writer*

      I’m super glad to know this is in someone’s job description. I was once on a newspaper website reading a story about a child molester being sentenced … and the ad on the page featured a baby selling some kind of child product. I was so horrified.

      1. Manders*

        Oh no! That can happen when people are buying digital ads on a system that tries to match the ad with the text on the page. There should be ways to prevent that from happening, but on the internet, it’s usually on the organization buying the ad to figure out which keywords to exclude.

        The company that owns the site may not actually be able to see who’s being served which ads, because there are so many different factors that go into which ads are placed where (like: your personal browsing history, your geographic location, the demographic information the ad network thinks it has about you, etc.). And the company that’s buying ads probably has not hand-selected which pages they want to appear on. So this kind of mistake happens all too frequently, and no one at either company may even be aware of it until a reader reports the issue to them.

        1. Michaela Westen*

          I’ve seen on allergy sites, ads for soy products on pages that are discussing soy allergy.
          It’s annoying and offensive, but I’ve spent too much of my life reporting such things and *not* seeing them change.
          There are so, so many things like that on the internet. Like for the first few years Java was in use it often crashed sites.
          I had to get AdBlock on my home computer because so many sites are made unusable by ad bloating – I can’t scroll to read the article, or intrusive ads or videos keep popping up…
          Once in a while there’s a site where an ad or solicitation pops up and freezes the screen so the site can’t be used – eventually the site owners will figure it out when their web traffic is zero…
          But really, no one has time to fix all that. If the site owners or advertising companies won’t make the effort to check their own sites, why should we?

        2. TardyTardis*

          I remember the ad for using Exotic New Medicine followed very shortly by the ad for the Lawyers About the Exotic New Medicine Standing By. Now that was a little surreal. And on broadcast TV, too.

      2. EvilQueenRegina*

        There was one once in my local paper about a sex abuse scandal at a private school, and on the next page there was an advert for that same school.

      3. AnonEMoose*

        I was once reading an article about “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” on a website, and realized that the ad at the bottom of the page was for Liberty University. I had a good laugh over that one.

    3. Software Engineer*

      Yeah it’s usually not just on one person… if your company depends on each and every person doing everything perfectly all the time then there is a big problem there. At my company big failures are treated as a learning experience and a failure of mechanisms (we had so many chances to catch this bug in testing and stop it going out or catch it early…) so I’ve never seen anyone fired even for some mistakes with huge consequences

      What makes a mistake fireable shouldn’t be how bad the impact was but how out of line with best practices and good faith your actions are. If it was a human error the real question is what your company do to minimize the impact of human errors because it’s not possible to make your employees inhuman

  10. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    It costs money to do business, this includes all the human errors that occur on any given day! I have made some really bad mistakes but in the end the revenue I save and generate outweighs things. I apologize, own it and show how I plan to not re-do the mistake in the future if necessary [lots of “I have put into place a procedure to avoid this, I can show you my new plan, here’s my notes on the issue and this way it remains something I can revisit and avoid repeating.”]

    Unless it’s true neglect that runs deeper than the immediate issue, most managers aren’t going to fire an otherwise wonderful employee for this kind of thing. If it comes down to I can no longer trust you, sure but you are beating yourself up, you know you cost the company money, you feel bad, that’s the sign of a good employee that you will not fire for such a thing.

  11. Sleepytime Tea*

    I think that “fireable” errors need to be viewed in context. If you made mistakes all the time and then made another really big one, then it’s kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. If you’re an exceptional employee with a proven track record who makes a single mistake, then reasonable management won’t fire you over one mistake.

    The thing about being an exceptional employee is that you will beat yourself up more for your single mistake than anyone else ever will, and definitely more than the employee who makes mistakes all the time, because they make those mistakes frequently from lack of caring. You care! And that’s a good thing.

    Alison’s points are spot on, and pretty much exactly what I did when I made my first (and so far only… fingers crossed) mistake at my current job. I beat myself up endlessly and I knew I created a ton of work for other people. My boss told me he was much less concerned about the fact I made a mistake, because it happens, than he he was about HOW it happened and why none of our checks and balances caught the issue before it made it all the way into production (this is in IT). I still beat myself up for it, but I told him how it happened, how I will prevent it in the future, and we ended up having a very solid and productive conversation about best practices and ways we could improve our processes.

    It hasn’t been held against me, although he did give me some gentle, good natured ribbing one time at happy hour. Have a plan and follow through, and continue being exceptional.

  12. CastIrony*

    I’ve got a long story:

    I, too, made a horrible mistake years ago, but it was because I reacted extremely badly to someone yelling at me IN MY FACE. I was sent home, suspended for two weeks, and then generously given another chance (maybe because I cried throughout the unpleasant conversation of “Almost Everyone is Your Superior, And Every One of Them Will Do Things Differently, So Deal with It.”)

    A few days later after I returned, I got another lecture: “You’d Better Learn to Deal with People You Don’t Like, So Let’s Move on From This” Internally, I was all, “It’s not that I don’t like them; it’s that I’m TERRIFIED of them yelling at me in the face again!” Didn’t get to say that out loud.

    I didn’t speak to that person unless it was absolutely necessary for the next few years, and only as a last resort. I
    didn’t respond to their greetings because it was like I was being yelled in the face again. Luckily, I now am at that point where I greet them and ask them questions. Respectfully.

    How I recovered: I was so nervous for a long time, but I focused on doing a very good job at what I do and being an even more respectful employee to a fault (Now I’m even more conflict-adverse! Yay!)

    1. Bubbleon*

      I can’t speak to the type of mistake you made, but I have a hard time thinking of any situation where someone yelling in your face would be conducive to a positive result. Just because someone’s superior to you doesn’t mean you have to accept being yelled at, I hope that person got a “We All Work With Humans, You Should Treat Them Like Humans And Not Scream” lecture

      1. Anita Brayke*

        …AND that they, too, got suspended for two weeks without pay! The message they appeared to want to send was that “We’re here to be abusive to you, and if you don’t deal with our abuse and extreme unprofessionalism with grace and dignity, then you get two weeks off without pay!” People have every right to expect to be treated professionally. Yes, you made an error, but guess what? So does everyone else on the planet!

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Wait. Wait. Wait. What?

      You’ve stayed somewhere that said it’s okay to yell in your face and you were chastised and suspended for reacting to SCREAMING IN YOUR FACE?

      You will never ever recover from this fully while you still stay in an abusive employment relationship. They are abusing you. Just like an abuser says “I wouldn’t hit you if you didn’t make me mad and made me yell and I’m allowed to because you did this to yourself by making a mistake” or whatever else. No. You are in a very bad terrible situation and nobody has any right or reason to ever treat you so poorly.

      1. CastIrony*

        It’s because I slapped them, which I immediately regretted ever since. I have never done it again.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Oh man, yeah I thought you just cussed them out or something of that sort. They should have still been held responsible for screaming at you and not had excuses made for their bad behavior but I see why you had to be suspended.

    3. CR*

      I was yelled at last week over making a typo in a document. I didn’t react badly, but I am still recovering and wondering how I can move on. It’s never happened to me before. My job was threatened over this small error. (Obviously, the boss who did the yelling is unreasonable and this isn’t a healthy environment). I am torn between making nice and trying to recover, or walking out. I guess I would love to see an article from Alison on how to recover after you made a mistake that wasn’t fireable!

      1. Bubbleon*

        Find a new job. You shouldn’t have to recover from a minor mistake- after you’ve acknowledged what happened/why and how to make sure it won’t happen again, the issue should be resolved. It would be a different story if you kept making mistakes or made bigger ones, but you already know this is an unhealthy environment so who knows how poorly they would handle things in either of those cases.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Find a new job. You don’t need to just walk out but if you have the financial ability to do so, don’t stay there either. They don’t respect you and they’re going to harm your self esteem and overall health by putting up with that kind of abusive nonsense.

        You don’t recover from a toxic boss. If this was the only time they snapped and they apologized, I would give them one more chance possibly but they went and nuked his only chance with threatening your job. Stay in control of your future and destiny, this guy is stinker. You deserve better and there is better out there.

        The only time I was ever threatened with my job [not over mistakes just over the fact the boss ended up being unhinged] I got a new job. This isn’t something you come back from, this isn’t a marriage you didn’t make any vows, there’s no counseling and “Trying to fix it” stage.

      3. Seeking Second Childhood*

        The motion is thirded and passed. Yelling is not a reasonable reaction, unless it has immediate life-safety that guy over there is about to test the procedure and it will go boom.
        I just posted in this thread about mixing up milli & micro… now I will add that the document had to be recalled, corrected, and rereleased because the error threw off battery calcs by an order of magnitude.
        We fixed it, I learned not to copy/paste into that program from MSWord without checking symbols because of how Word inserts them, and no one yelled.

  13. Karen from Finance*

    My partner was in line for a promotion and he made a huge mistake, one that could make the company liable for some serious trouble. He was so defeated, he told me he had lost the promotion and he was afraid of getting in some serious trouble. Turns out the mistake was fixed because it got caught in time and he still got the promotion, and much sooner than we expected. The reason the mistake had happened at all was because he was so damn overworked keeping the whole team afloat, and it showed.

    1. CastIrony*

      Sounds like he works for very understanding people! I hope both of you are so happy!

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I feel like there needs to be a huge reminder to everyone some days that the most successful people in the world have made a lot of costly ugly mistakes and they still got to where they are despite those “setbacks” or errors.

      Business owners and CEOs all make costly errors frequently, much more costly than any one they have working for them. Sure some of them have even been fired prior to their success, everyone’s worked for some jerkwad at some point it turns out.

      Good companies, with good management won’t hold them against you if you show them you’re doing everything in your power to do things well, effectively and such.

  14. Kettles*

    Own up. Apologise. Offer to resign.

    There are senior staff / politicians / public figures who lack this grace and maturity. Own your mistake and make it easier to either forgive you or let you go and think well of you.

    1. Bubbleon*

      Offering to resign feels a little too far for most non-senior positions and mistakes. I’d certainly try covering all of Alison’s points in conversation and acting on them before offering to resign. That feels a bit of a last resort if no one seems to be able to accept that you can move forward successfully.

      1. fposte*

        I totally agree. There are plenty of big mistakes that aren’t resignation worthy, and that could actually come across as a discomfiting overreaction. I’d see how the wind blows with an apology and a prevention plan before offering to resign.

      2. Kettles*

        I’m only talking about objectively fireable mistakes; and to be clear, not an anxious person’s (I am one) “I’m going to get fired about a triviality!” I mean the kind of mistake where you’ve lost the company a huge client, or a significant amount of money.

        1. Mary*

          I think the thing is that it’s very, very difficult for most people to tell what an “objectively fireable mistake” is if they are the person who made the mistake. In my experience, an individual will often feel like a big mistake is “a fireable mistake” because the logic we personally operate on is “I fucked up, I deserve to be punished, being fired is a fitting punishment for my fuck up”.

          But from an organisational point of view, you don’t fire people as punishment, you fire people because the organisation will be better able to carry out their mission without that person. It’s rarely the case that an organisation will be better off without a person who has made “a mistake”–even a big mistake. That’s only likely to be the case if the person is so new that it’s not worth the organisation’s time to retrain/improve them; if the mistake is part of a pattern; if the mistake reveals that the person has extremely poor judgment and shouldn’t be in their role; if you have concerns that the person doesn’t recognise the seriousness of the mistake and therefore can’t have reasonable faith that it won’t happen again; and so on.

          But none of those is really about the gravity/seriousness of a particular mistake, but about the context in which it happens: you can have someone make a really major mistake, but it’s clearly a genuine mistake, they’ve taken responsibility, learned, initiated or accepted changes to make it less likely to happen in the future, and it would make no sense to fire them. You can have someone else make a really minor mistake, but it shows that their judgment / skills / attitude are just wrong for the role that they’re in, and they get fired because the organisation is better off without them.

          I think generally, things that are glossed as “objectively fireable mistakes” are probably not mistakes at all, but deliberate acts that speak to bad judgment, such as “mistakenly” sexually harassing or assaulting a colleague. But even if there are such things as objectively fireable mistakes, I’m not convinced that the person who has made the mistake is capable of identifying which they are.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Do not resign.

      Being fired for an error will result in unemployment benefits. Resigning because you wanted to look like you have grace/maturity results in you being ineligible for insurance benefits. Yikes, do not ever resign unless you can at least get a severance package or something to get you over that unemployed hump. Don’t fall on a sword for a company.

      Politicians, high ranking officials and public figures mistakes are a whole different ball game and issue than a regular employee making a costly error.

      1. fposte*

        I agree with not offering to resign here, but I think the calculus on resigning/firing is more complicated than that, since being fired is something you’ll have to disclose in a lot of job applications and can put you on the back foot. That’s especially true if this isn’t the only time you’ve been fired. Sometimes the reputational lubricant is worth more than UI.

      2. Kettles*

        Caveat is that I’m from the U.K. – often in this scenario you can negotiate an “I resigned” package to avoid the “did you ever get fired” scenario and the employer will graciously call it redundancy so you can still get unemployment. In the US scenario I would still rather negotiate to avoid a firing, but that is a privileged choice I couldn’t have made five years ago.

        1. Forrest*

          Resignation rather than redundancy, surely? Redundancy would presumably require the employer not to recruit anyone else to that position.

          1. Akcipitrokulo*

            Yeah… but the only way they’d get called on it would be if you took them to a tribunal and it would all come out. So likely a let sleeping dogs lie situation.

        2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Ah that makes a lot of sense and I can completely agree with you on the fact that if it came down to “You’re going to be fired”, you should negotiate to leave on your own and to save yourself that mark against you. I just wouldn’t put it out there until they started speaking about their idea of letting you go.

    3. Kettles*

      Just wanted to say that all these comments have made me rethink! One of the reasons I love AAM is that I learn so much, from the blog and commenters x

  15. Anonylawyer*

    I think in line with owning up to the mistake is also not being a jerk about it.

    Story: I worked at a law firm several years ago. There was an assistant whose job it was to get notices of hearing from the court and log the notices on the lawyers’ calendars. Because … that’s how the lawyers would know when to go to court. At one point we had an assistant who wasn’t great. She missed a notice for one of the lawyers, who ended up missing a hearing. Luckily it was at the nearest courthouse (about a 10 minute walk) and the court clerk called inquiring about where the lawyer was. That person hurriedly grabbed the file and went to court. Unfortunately the client wasn’t there, but some work was still able to get done. The assistant said basically, “yeah, that’s my bad. sorry about that.” And that was it. Her attitude was so poor about something pretty serious that she quickly lost everyone’s trust.

    1. Southern Yankee*

      Attitude matters. A Lot. I had a large staff of people doing a large volume of transactions. Mistakes happen. Sometimes they have bigger consequences than others. When one had a big consequence, I expected Alison’s suggested reaction: own up, explain how it happened and how to prevent it next time. Even if the change was something simple like “double check anything over x$” or “get more sleep” that was fine because it indicated they were thinking about why it happened. With that framework, I could add suggestions or advice and trust a lesson was learned.

      What never, ever, worked? The employee saying with a shrug “mistakes happen”.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        It really does! Last month, one of my supervisors assigned a task to someone who had previously knocked the same task out of the park. (The supervising attorney asked for the staff member to be assigned to their project it on because of this previous good work.) The second go round? They missed basic, basic stuff. When the first error surfaced, the attorney asked them to do a quick double-check before we sent copies to about a dozen client representatives. Their response? “Going through them again was a waste of time. Most of them were right – I only found [equivalent of 10% of the population] more mistakes. Stuff happens.” Supervisor had to explain that a 10% (easily avoidable) error rate wasn’t acceptable and that their lack of concern abut the volume of errors was concerning to the point the attorney who’d asked to work with them wanted them taken off the project for their blase attitude about the mistakes more than the failure to do a QC pass.

  16. Alana*

    I’d also say in this situation that if you tend toward beating yourself up, as many conscientious and high-achieving people do, try to moderate that tendency when you’re in conversations about your mistake. Be clear, specific, and action-oriented. Don’t dwell at length on how you’re an idiot, you can’t believe you’re so bad at this, you’re sure they’re mad at you, etc — it puts the manager in a really tough position of handling a major mistake, possibly disciplining you, and trying to manage your emotions at the same time.

    1. Southern Yankee*

      Agreed! Beating yourself up too much will be counter productive. Focus conversation on how you plan to prevent it next time.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      This is wonderful advice! I am going to steal it and incorporate it into my orientation training on handling of mistakes, if you don’t mind.

  17. Anonrn*

    What advice would you have for LW if the mistake was in the healthcare field? I’m referring to a “near miss” situation, not a sentinel event.

    1. Mary*

      UK poster who has done a lot of training woem with doctors: I would expect in a healthcare field that there would be established processes to manage this. A near-miss may or may not qualify as a Significant Incident, and there should be someone responsible within the service / department / organisation who is responsible for deciding what should be reported as an SI. If it’s an SI, there should be a investigative process to decide how and why it happened and whether there is any organisational learning or process change required.

      For the individuals involved, it should be documented in their personal practice portfolios, reflected on and discussed with the appraiser (doctors) or supervisor (allied health professions.) Doctors’ appraisals have a specific section for discussing SIs (I assume nurses’ and AHPs’ do too, but I’m less familiar with them!); if it doesn’t rise to the level of an SI you can still document it, reflect on it and discuss it with your appraiser yourself. Doctors are increasingly being encouraged to do this, although I found there’s still a lot of concern about whether it’s safe to do so. Where people have got appraisal right, though, I think it’s really powerful.

    2. Mary*

      So I obviously don’t know whether you have comparable processes and support in your system, but my point is really that in healthcare you shouldn’t have much individual decision-making to do in this situation: if a near-miss is significant enough to give you pause and concern, there should be a organisational process of reporting it and learning from it, either at organisational level or at a personal level or both, and that learning and reflection should be embedded in practice. These processes aren’t fully embedded in the UK system, so I found that I had conversations with people where they had something they wanted to talk about and reflect on, and when I pointed out that this is what appraisal is for, they were kind of surprised and pleased to hear it could be used that way. If that’s the case for you – it exists but it’s not your first thought – then try engaging with the process and see if it helps?

      If you don’t have a formal system of supervised or embedded reflective practice, then can you create a personal one? Can you write down your analysis of the incident and your feelings about it, and then is there a trustworthy colleague you could discuss it with? Can you identify whether there is just personal learning (“I need to triple check these, especially if I’m tired”) or organisational learning (“actually, it’s not great that the red ones are right next to the pink ones, especially when the light’s pretty rubbish in here”), and if the latter, pass it upwards?

      As a general observation, what you need to try and do is separate your emotions about it (shame, fear of being found out, alarm, embarrassment, whatever) from the learning that needs to take place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. It’s completely natural and OK to feel whatever you feel, and a good appraiser or supervisor won’t tell you to NOT feel those things (and will hopefully explore it with you, because that’s going to help you get over it faster and be a more effective healthcare provider), but they will also help you focus on what needs to change to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In short, it shouldn’t be different from what Alison has outlined above, BUT the fact thatconsequences of mistakes can that much more terrible in healthcare means that organisations have a greater responsibility to manage the process of mistakes and near-misses for both individuals and organisations.

  18. RS*

    Someone once told me a story that they had made a huge mistake and cost their company something like $100,000. They went to their boss and said something like, “I get it, you have to fire me, right?” And the boss said, “Are you kidding? I can’t fire you. I just invested $100,000 in you!” Hopefully, OP’s boss will view this as their employee having made an expensive mistake, but learned a lesson of commensurate value.

  19. kneadmeseymour*

    If I were the manager in this situation, my main priority would be figuring out how the mistake happened and how to keep it from happening again. Particularly if two otherwise stellar employees were able to make the mistake, I’d be concerned that there might be some fundamental issue with the procedure that would let that happen. Of course, it might have also been a fluke, but I would imagine most reasonable managers would be most concerned with this piece. While the LW should take responsibility and show that they recognize the seriousness of the error, it may feel much more personal to them than how others will see it.

  20. msk*

    I work in operations, and when we make a mistake, boy howdy, can it have major impact. In my 27 years at this company, I’ve made a couple of doozies, and counseled other employees when they made a big one. The way I’ve handled them was much as Allison says, to understand how it happened, and to have a plan for what I’ll do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But beyond that, with operations, there is always a clean up that needs to take place–data in our various systems needs to be corrected, perhaps transactions need to be corrected and reposted. I have always offered to lead the cleanup project, bringing in others to guide me and answer questions, and to be totally transparent with management on how the cleanup is going. If you can lead the cleanup, it shows that management has some confidence in you apart from the current catastrophe. It also can expand your knowledge. Finally, it’s “penance” that can help you avoid the issue in the future and not piss off coworkers who have to fix your mistakes. Also, being really apologetic to any coworkers who have to participate in the cleanup helps.

  21. emmelemm*

    Man, you haven’t lived until you’ve been awake at night thinking, “I may have just cost one of our clients a $250,000 IRS fine.”

    Note: it all seems to have turned out OK with a lot of corrective action, knock on wood

  22. Iconoclast in California*

    I work in sysadmin/SRE.

    In my field, if you haven’t ever made an error that has brought down production, you aren’t doing anything.

    What makes the difference is what you do *after*.

    If you
    a) tell people as soon as you realize the error,
    b) do your best to fix the error, and
    c) figure out how it happened and ways not to make the mistake again,
    then you’ve still added value to the organization.

    On the other hand, if you:
    a) deny making the error,
    b) sling blame onto everyone but yourself,
    c) make no effort to recover from the error, and
    d) don’t learn from it and document the knowledge,
    you deserve to be written up or even fired.

    Now, certain life and death fields don’t have quite as much room for mistakes, but those should have sanity checks and stuff like that to go with it already.

    1. Powercycle*


      First week at one job I accidentally deleted some production data and broke data flows between systems when decommissioning an old server. I was sooo embarrassed. But I owned up to it right away and the whole team worked together to get everything back up and running by end of day.

  23. Bulbasaur*

    For “steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again” make sure this is something more than “I will be extra careful to be perfect and never make mistakes from now on.”

    Let’s suppose, for example, that you left off a zero on a binding quote and you’re now committed to delivering $1 million worth of product and/or service for $100,000. You might say: “I will commit to double checking my quotes and ensure I never do this again.” Or you might say: “I suggest that we create a rule that for quotes over $X, they must be reviewed by another person, or another person and a senior manager if they are over $Y, and that they explicitly sign off on the final version before it goes to the customer.”

    The former relies on people to be perfect. The latter accepts that people are imperfect and will make mistakes, and addresses it by designing the process in such a way that a single mistake is not enough to cause a negative business outcome.

    1. Liz*

      I agree with this. In my job, while not having to do with money at all, we have a “thing” we do daily. I start the process, and do a portion of the next step. As does my boss, and his boss. My boss then reviews my portion of the “thing”, makes any changes, corrections, asks for clarification etc. Then sends it to HIS boss who does the same thing.

      I will admit that sometimes I am not as careful as i can be. I try, but i’ve found when you do the same thing day in and day out, without there being much you can do to change it up, it becomes routine, and mistakes happen. but with the system of two more looking at it, you would think they’d catch it too. Nope, not always,and while I will own up to the fact I made the initial error (all very minor, and having to do with accuracy in summarizing things), it does kind of annoy me when neither of THEM catch it either.

      1. Bulbasaur*

        Having been in that position myself (team lead and code reviewer in my case) I can say it’s way easier than you might think. Senior staff are frequently short on time and don’t do nearly as good a job checking all the details as they think they do, and if it was subtle enough to escape your attention then it’s often subtle enough to escape theirs as well.

        The best solution is to get a specialist to do it, generally an editor of some kind. The best of them are well aware of the gap between people’s perceived and actual ability to spot small mistakes, and know that their job is to cover it. Unfortunately it can be difficult to justify them sometimes, as managers without experience in process design for quality often perceive it as paying someone to cover for others not doing their job.

  24. nora*

    Seven years ago I was calculating distributions for a fiendishly complicated grant. I screwed up and a recipient got $15,000 they should not have gotten. After the checks were cut and mailed I was doing something else and suddenly realized what I did. I immediately went to my boss, who immediately went to her boss. I was terrified. One possible solution was eliminating my role to make up the cash shortfall so the funds could be distributed correctly. Thankfully they didn’t seem inclined to fire me for cause but holy shirtballs I was shaking. I am positive that my going to my boss and telling her what I did saved me. To solve the issue, we all sat down together and developed written processes and procedures, including oversight, for future grants. In retrospect this incident sparked in me a passion for analyzing processes and systems, and how people interact with them and function within them. It’s probably no surprise I now have a masters degree in a process-oriented field.

    Although my job was eliminated a while later for unrelated reasons, my grandboss ended up being a wonderful mentor for some years after and we still email occasionally to this day. I tell the story to students I supervise and in job interviews to show that (a) everyone makes mistakes, (b) most are fixable, and (c) most problems are a failure in the process, not a failure of the person.

  25. jolene*

    My boss in the olden days once faxed a quote to the office of a very, very rich client (heirs to a chocolate dynasty) over which she had scrawled ‘YAY YAY YAY BUCKETS OF MONEY’. It was late at night and on realising what she had done, she rang the security guard and persuaded him to go and find it and shred it. As far as I remember she never even sent him a bottle of something to say thank you, though she was incredibly humble and thankful on the phone to him.

    I never needed to remind her of that, but I did hold it in my mind in case she ever ticked me off for something I’d messed up, as she could be volatile… and I would have done it in a “this is what happens when we’re tired and overworked” way that she would have been okay with. I also was unfireable as I was really, really good at and overqualified for my job.

    But it was nice to have ammo if I needed it. And I did really respect her for fixing her problem!

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      That’s an appalling mistake, and she’s incredibly lucky she caught it… but I think looking at it as something that you could hold over your boss’s head is also not great. Mistakes shouldn’t be banked as ammo on either side of the ball. I tend to use mistakes I’ve made to relate to people when I’m coaching them, but the takeaway should not be, “Well, NAM! make the same (or a worse) mistake once so I’ll just remind them of that when I screw up.”

      1. jolene*

        I didn’t hold it over her head; that’s like a Sword of Damocles, always there. I kept it as ammo, as I said, with a volatile boss. She was capable of over-reacting, though I knew how to handle her, and I was always aware that a “Hey, it’s not as if I faxed the [Bournville] family with YAY YAY BUCKETS OF MONEY” would have brought her back to earth – especially as I also made sure to say in my post that it would be in the context of “tired and overworked leads to mess-ups”.

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