So, you’ve had one of those awful stomach-drop moments. You’ve made a major mistake at work – maybe you yelled at your bully boss, deleted a critical company file, or failed to pick up a software glitch that’s cost a client thousands – and in the aftermath, you’re feeling that crippling mix of horror, shame, and anxiety. Good news is, even though you might be convinced your career is over, it is possible, in most cases, to come back from a workplace slip-up if you respond in the right way. We recommend taking the following steps to minimize the damage caused by your blunder and to up your chances of recovering completely.
- First, breathe
The worst thing you can do when you’ve messed up majorly at the office is reacting impulsively or defensively – do this and you’ll probably just dig an even deeper hole for yourself. You need a solid plan of action, and in order to put one together, you need to be thinking clearly. So, step out for a while to let the panic pass – go for a walk, phone a friend or consult a superior if necessary. The critical thing here is that you take time to reflect on what happened and to gather yourself before moving forward.
- Admit fault
There might be a thousand excuses running through your head right now, but if you’re serious about bouncing back, you won’t use a single one. When you’ve made a major mistake at work, honesty is always your best approach. Own your error. Say, “Yes, I messed up”, and leave it at that. If your slip-up directly impacts client relations, then offer to get on the phone with the client and personally explain what went wrong – don’t expect your boss or HR to do it. By accepting responsibility and responding with grace, you communicate to those around you that you’re taking the situation seriously and are genuinely remorseful.
A simple apology can go a long way towards rectifying your wrongdoing and saving your professional reputation. Just make sure it sounds sincere and is directed at the right person – don’t apologize to management alone when you should really be saying sorry to your co-worker. Keep your apology brief and professional, too. Don’t ramble, weep or collapse into a heaving, self-loathing mess. This won’t feel all that genuine to the recipient, and in any case, you don’t want to bring more attention to your epic fail than is necessary.
- Pinpoint the origin of your mistake
It’s hard to move forward if you don’t fully understand why you made the blunder in the first place. Take time to dissect the event and its causes. If you messed up an important procedure, could it be because you’re not actually sure how it should be done, and you’ve just been too nervous to ask for help? Or are you dropping balls because you’re trying to juggle too many? Did you scream at your co-worker because you’re feeling overwhelmed at work? Or going through something difficult at home? Get to the bottom of the “why” behind your screw-up and you can turn your mistake into an invaluable learning opportunity.
- Suggest a fix
Maybe your mistake can be fairly easily corrected – by working all weekend to recreate the document you deleted, for example. If this is the case, then be the first to suggest a solution, and demonstrate that you’re 100% ready to start implementing it. If there’s no quick fix, then at the very least, you’ll want to take your learnings from the step above and convert them into a plan for change to ensure that you never repeat your mess-up. This might mean attending courses to improve your skills or even changing something in your work environment so that you’re better able to cope.
The key thing here is to communicate to your boss how you plan to prevent future errors. You might even want to document the events surrounding your major mistake at work in a post-mortem report so that other employees can learn from your experience, too. Not only will this approach show emotional intelligence, but it’ll also help to position you as a problem-solver who’s committed to righting wrongs.
- Take it on the chin
Ideally, your apology and proposed fix will be enough, but HR might feel the need to discipline you in other ways. If this is the case, don’t throw your toys out of the cot and harp on about the injustice of the penalty. Accept the repercussions quietly and move on like the genuinely regretful professional you are.
- Let your actions speak for themselves
Once you’ve apologized and committed to doing better in future, all you really can do is show management, and your colleagues, how serious you are about putting your major mistake at work behind you through your actions. Be a first-rate employee in every way – put extra effort into your duties, go out of your way to assist co-workers, take initiative and spearhead new projects, attend after-work events and catch-ups. Essentially, do everything you can to remind your boss and work peers of your value and to turn your blunder into a distant memory in their minds.
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