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Saturday, January 5, 2008

what to do when you make a mistake at work

When you make a mistake at work, how you handle it can often say much more about you than the mistake itself.

Reasonable bosses understand that no one is perfect and mistakes will occasionally happen -- what they care about is how you follow up on that mistake. As it happens, there's a pretty foolproof formula for handling it well. If you follow this formula (and have a reasonable boss), you'll likely be surprised at how well he or she responds.

Here's the formula:

1. Tell your boss what happened -- immediately. Do not put it off out of fear. I will be far more upset if time is allowed to pass before I'm informed. Delaying sends the message that you value your own comfort over the needs of your work.

2. Take responsibility for it. Don't make excuses, and don't be defensive.

3. Tell me how it happened. Not only do I want to know, I want to know that you know.

4. Most importantly, explain how you plan to ensure it doesn't happen again.

This formula works because when someone makes a mistake, what a boss needs to do is make sure that the person understands the seriousness of it and knows how to avoid it in the future. If you take the initiative to cover those things yourself, then your boss doesn't need to do it herself (and having your boss impress upon you how serious a mistake was tends to be much less pleasant than saying it yourself).

In other words, do your boss' job for her -- eliminate the need for her to reprimand you by reprimanding yourself.

Why don't more people realize this?


Evil HR Lady said...

This is one of my key points in life--although surprisingly, I've never blogged about it.

I make mistakes. You make mistakes. Your boss makes mistakes. Your underlings make mistakes.

Fine. Just fix it and go on. Don't try to blame other people. Own it, fix it and move on.

Sometimes you have to fix things caused by other people. Tough. Fix it. It makes me think less highly of you when you blame other people, rather than just just fixing it.

Anonymous said...

I think this touches on a larger issue: lack of accountability in the workplace.

People sometimes get so focused on getting ahead, making it to the top that they see any mistake/failure as a much bigger deal than it really is.

I tell my team all the time not to feel bad or guilty when they make a mistake since I, as the senior employee, have made the same exact mistakes before.

The important thing, which you mention in point #4 is that you learn from the mistake and don't repeat it again.

This is the hallmark of success--not avoiding failure, but rather learning from it.

Anonymous said...

Common sense, but very insightful. From a legal perspective, an employer is less likely to terminate the employment of someone who follows your advice. Not disclosing the mistake turns and error into misconduct.

Anonymous said...

An excellent and helpful post. Good advice and clear rationale.

Anonymous said...

Great post. It works both ways too. The supervisor should follow similar rules when we make a mistake if we want to retain qualitystaff.

I really appreciate your blog.

Happy Receptionist said...

This happened to me- our office v-mail was down and i had to take messages for all 16 employees "by hand'meaning Write down quickly and then clarify for an email. Well i wrote it down but the phone rang again and i forgot to send our VP the message that his meeting in California? oh that was moved to New york now. (just an example but it night as wel have been that far.)
When he called wondering where his client was i immeadiatly apologized over the phone and then wrote a short email saying that i was sorry. That i understood i wasted valuable time and it would never happen again.
The VP came in the office, told me he got my email and that he was going to keep it between us. No fuss no muss Igot to keep my job!

Bobby Adamson said...

People are always going to make mistakes. Sometimes uncontrollable malfunctions can come down on your head! It's all about how you handle it, and owning up to them is the most respectable thing you can do. I actually wrote a post about it here, as well. Really great post though, it's nice to get it from the perspective of someone who has to make people accountable for their actions.

Anonymous said...

Boss can make mistakes because they are paying for it.
Employees can make acceptable mistakes, because they are getting paid by the hourly.
If an employee has to stay late for his mistakes has the boss does, and not getting paid , for shure is going to think again before making mistakes...
You know what , people deserves what they get, they are not responsible for anything... they don't care, and they don't worry.
If they lived in a poor country withoult food or water to drink, they will appreciate their job.

Riaz said...

Admit that you have made a mistake before any one else finds about it and promise that you would be very careful in future. Seek help from people who are more experienced than you and let your supervisor know about their support. Most organizations would not take any action at the first occurance; however if mistakes are repeated in spite of training / orientation - be prepared to be fired from your job.