What To Do When You Have Messed Up At Work

Estimated reading time: 4 mins

If we didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t be human. Still, when we mess up at work we often find ourselves in a sticky, embarrassing situation. So here are some tips I’ve used that can get the mess cleared up.

The first, and best advice I can share is: DON’T PANIC. (I’ve learned this from painful experience.) Panicking almost always ends up with the situation being made worse. Once I made an administrative error that cost my employers a fair wedge of money because I panicked and made a subsequent mistake that made the original look like a minor ink-blot! I tried to do the right thing, but under pressure I made the situation worse. I didn’t consult anyone else – if I had I would have taken a more measured approach.

I almost experienced my first formal disciplinary. And red cheeks in the office for a few hours too.

What I learned here was not to rush to rectify the situation without thinking it through, and even more importantly, I should have told my boss about it.

You know, unless you have a difficult and unreasonable boss (if you do, then take a look at my article ‘What Should You Do If Your Boss Hates You?‘) then it’s likely that they understand, too, that to err is to be human. That said, what most bosses don’t like is when we don’t handle the situation properly when we do make a mistake.

Mistakes happen – they’re expected, and that’s why there are protocols for dealing with them. Most organizations have teams dedicated to mopping up issues. Most management structures include some form of problem resolution, because unexpected things happen. Complaints team; client services; hit squads; first-aid teams – they all exist because things go wrong. So when they do, we should work with these protocols to resolve them.

Yada yada… even so, when a mistake happens, it’s not always easy to face it, square-on. I know! It could be a blot on a clean-sheet, or the straw that broke the camel’s back. So what do we do when we realize what a gaffe we’ve made? Here’s what I do:

First of all, I get over the initial rush of adrenalin. We don’t handle things with a level head if we work with the initial rush. That’s in panic-territory. I let the hormonal imbalance subside, and get my head straight.

Next, I quantify and qualify the mistake. I ask myself if the mistake is a genuine one (is my information correct?), and then I look at the impact. Who is affected; when were they affected; how much; where was the effect. Etc, etc. E.g. I might see that a problem will result in a $1,000 loss, it affected only 2 local customers.

Then I consider who should be informed. I do a quick check as to who the stakeholders are – normally the people who are affected. This helps in assessing the priorities and enables me to target any rectification to the highest-risk areas (e.g. the biggest customers)

Next, I establish what the resolution protocol is. Before I go to my boss, I consider what should be done about the issue. Knowing a range of solutions to the problem steers the conversation towards the fix, and away from blame too. However, I don’t waste time if I can’t find out quicky. If there are established emergency protocols in place, then put them into action.

Then, I go see my boss. If the wheels of rectification are in motion, or not, I go see my boss. This isn’t to go cap-in-hand for forgiveness (although that might happen too); instead it is to ensure that the chain of responsibility is maintained. If there is going to be ramifications, then my boss better know about it. So it’s about courtesy, too.

I deal with the fall-out. Sometimes, it’s not enough just to put out the fire. It’s rare we can just walk away and leave the embers smouldering. After most calamities, there are the consequences to manage, and I find it’s better to get onto the front-foot by communicating these first before other people remind me of them. Before now, I’ve sent communications right through the organization to inform colleagues of the situation, and if there are any temporary changes in modus operandi as a result. It’s a managed way of fessing-up before the rumor mill starts, and again, it’s courteous. I’ve also been in roles where I have produced incident-reports afterwards, which are more formal communications that record what happened, why, where, when, etc.; what was learned; remedial actions; future mitigation and risk management procedures.

Finally, I remember that Accidents Do Happen. Business is not engineered for perfection. In the workplace, accidents happen. So I always keep this in the back of my mind; I could beat myself up over every mistake, but even when I have taken care and sensible precautions, and I have the right skills and resources to perform my job, mistakes are still (hopefully rare) occurrences that will inevitably happen.

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2 thoughts on “What To Do When You Have Messed Up At Work”

  1. Thanks for this. I needed to sort out my thoughts after realising I had made a mistake a work. This helped to make me approach things more systematically instead of panicking, and be aware of possible outcomes. The last part, “Accidents Do Happen” was a source of consolation. 🙂

    1. @Hazirah: admitting a mistake takes courage. Once you’re over that then the solution feels so much easier! Good luck

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