What To Do When You Make A Mistake At Work

What To Do When You Make A Mistake At Work

We all know that sinking feeling when you’ve allocated budget to the wrong account or sent a stroppy email to the wrong person. However big or small, making a mistake at work isn’t a nice feeling – but it happens, so what should you do about it? Own up, take responsibility and move on in a professional manner. The career pros will tell you it’s often a blessing in disguise, especially when you know how to handle it properly. Here, they explain how to do just that…
Photography: ISTOCK/ROCKY 89

Kate Lopaze from The Job Network says…

Step up. After a mistake, it can feel like you’re stuck in a kind of purgatory. Am I going to get fired? Have I totally ruined my reputation? And everything, every little mistake, feels magnified. It’s important not to get stuck under this tidal wave of stress and worry. Once you’ve made a mistake, or been called out for poor performance, the most important thing is to step up.

Accept responsibility for what happened. Resist the urge to throw anyone under the bus here; it won’t lessen the consequences and will just cause further issues and bad blood. That’s not to say you should take all the blame; rather, if it’s a shared mistake or problem, be clear about your part in the mistake, and take your share of the blame. Naming names won’t get you any brownie points right now. If it was a lapse on your part, let people know you’re taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If it was a process that failed, show how you’re changing things so that there’s not a repeat.

Look for small wins. Unfairly or not, you’re likely going to be under increased scrutiny for some period of time, while things are still recent and raw. In addition to making sure the blunder isn’t repeated, it couldn’t hurt to be an A+ employee for a while: show up early, work late, put in extra hours to show that you’re back on it. Take on extra projects to demonstrate your commitment to the job. It’s about rebuilding others’ confidence in you, but it’s just as much about rebuilding your own confidence. Succeeding at things, even small ones, can help you get back into your groove while showing everyone else you’re ready to move onward and upward.

Finally, move on. If it’s not a fatal (e.g. a firing offence), remember this too shall pass. Odds are things will get back to normal pretty quickly. And while you can’t erase what happened, or make everyone forget what you did, everyone has a job to do. This incident will get lost in the shuffle of everyday work. You might have a rough few weeks, but at some point you’ll notice that things have gotten back to the routine

Try not to catastrophise. It’s natural to assume the worst – but don’t let panic or imposter syndrome overwhelm you.
Nicola Greenbrook

HR specialist Nicola Greenbrook says…

Clear your head. Stop, take a deep breath and consider what’s actually happened (i.e. did you email the person intended or the whole company?). In your eagerness for damage control, avoid sending an email immediately. It could make things ten times worse and appear like you’ve lost control. But don’t run away either or blame the whole thing on a random person from finance. Be upfront with your manager and apologise, but don’t overdo it. Present a clearly thought-out solution for their approval and display a calm and professional exterior (even if you’re sobbing inside).  

Try not to catastrophise. It’s natural to assume the worst – but don’t let panic or imposter syndrome overwhelm you. It’s likely your colleagues won’t notice your mistake, as everyone’s too busy making their own. If it helps, talk to a friend or loved one. What feels like the end of the world this morning could make for an amusing anecdote by this evening. Swapping “You’ll never guess what I did today” tales can offer reassurance, a reality check and a giggle. Then, stop obsessing and let it go.

Talk to your boss if you feel overwhelmed. It’s time for a very frank discussion about your priorities, your tasks, and your role. If things don’t change and performance continues to slide, that will be on you, and it will make things even more uncomfortable. Your boss has a strong interest in making sure you perform your best and stay a satisfied employee, so don’t fear the conversation. It might be possible to restructure your daily tasks, or find new ways to do them, so that you’re able to do your job at the level you know you can hit.

Spin it. If you’ve lost your job as a result, it’s probably going to come up when someone sees an end date on your resume, or asks why you left your last job. The important thing is to turn the narrative into a more positive one. “I left my last position because it wasn’t a good fit. I’m ready to move on to the next challenge.” It’s a little vague and not ideal, but it’s also not a brutally honest, “I got fired. Hire me please?” Keep in mind that the reasons you were let go might come up during a background or reference check, so it’s best not to flat-out lie about your reasons for leaving.

After you’ve made a mistake, the right thing to do is to own it. Covering it up or shifting the blame to others will only make the situation worse than it already is.
Sarah Johnson

Marketing professional and founder & editor of Corporate Career Girl Sarah Johnson says…

Forgive yourself. After you’ve made a mistake, the right thing to do is to own it. Covering it up or shifting the blame to others will only make the situation worse than it already is. It’s okay to feel embarrassed and frustrated about the situation. Allow yourself to acknowledge what happened and let it go. If you need to take a 5-10 minutes’ walk just to refocus, do so. The most important thing is that you forgive yourself so you can bounce back effectively.

Take responsibility. Everyone makes mistakes. So, don’t feel ashamed to take responsibility for what happened. Often, how you handle your mistakes reflects your character. Plus, if you’re in your first graduate job, people won’t expect you to be perfect – but they will expect you to acknowledge your errors. If you need to apologise, make sure you do so. Avoid making excuses or justifying why you ended up making the mistake. Whether you’re apologising for the situation or to someone, it should be a sincere act. 

Evaluate the situation and take action if needed. Sometimes, a mistake can appear bigger than it really is. So, try not to dwell on that mistake for too long; it will only prevent you from seeing past the situation and what needs to be done to solve it. Instead, take the time to evaluate the situation. Being proactive can help fix the problem, so take the time to reflect on why you made the mistake in the first place. Were you under a lot of pressure? Or were you doing multiple tasks at the same time? If needed, make a step-by-step action plan to avoid making a similar mistake in the future.

Allow yourself to learn. The most important thing about making a mistake is that you can learn from it. Take stock of the moment and commit to improving yourself. Know your weaknesses and avoid doing crucial things when you are not in the right mindset. For example, if you know you tend to underperform when working under pressure, find ways to manage your time more effectively so that you can avoid doing so. Also, if possible, ask your manager or boss for feedback and speak to them about the things you are committed to working on.

For more support and career advice visit TheJobNetwork.com, NicolaGreenbrook.co.uk and CorporateCareerGirl.com.

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