You made a huge mistake at work... What to do now?

You made a huge mistake at work... What to do now?

We all make mistakes.  Sometimes they are small, and sometimes they are large…even huge.  It’s not your first mistake, and it won't be your last.  

I’ve sat in many executive meetings where we are deciding on a promotion for an employee and someone says, “Do you remember when xx made that mistake?”.  Instead of being a CLM (Career Limiting Move), if the person handled the mistake well, it becomes a positive factor that works in their favour. 

My advice, having made my own mistakes during my HR career and watching how people handled mistakes is:

 1.     Admit your mistake

First, you must admit to yourself that you made a mistake.  Unless you accept responsibility for the mistake in your own mind, others will not feel that you are genuine when you apologise. After admitting it to yourself, then you will need to admit it to your manager.

If the mistake was made by one of your team members, you still need to accept that it is your fault.  I always considered that if one of my team members made a mistake, it was my fault because I had not given them adequate training or instructions. There is an old saying that still applies to all modern workplaces “don’t blame them – if you didn’t train them."

 2.     Tell your Manager

You need to immediately tell your manager that you have made a mistake and need to take full responsibility for it.

Explain to your manager what went wrong and why, if you know the reason. If you have some ideas on how to fix it or how to prevent it ever happening again, you should share that as well.  

During my HR career, I have assisted many employees and their managers when the employee has made an enormous mistake.  In my experience when the person has immediately told their manager, the consequences have been much less severe.

There are two parts to the consequences of the mistake. The first are the consequences of the mistake on the company. The second are the consequences of the mistake on the person.

If the manager is informed immediately, it is often possible for them to limit or reduce the negative impact of the mistake on the company. This will usually reduce the negative consequences of the mistake on the future career of the person.   

However, when someone tries to hide the mistake, the opposite result occurs. The effect on the company can be severe, and the result of the person’s career prospects can be very damaging. So promptly confess the mistake, and never blame others for the mistake.  It will potentially damage your reputation and people will think that you are trying to avoid accepting responsibility (because you are).

 3.     Apologise

You need to apologise to your manager.  The apology needs to be genuine and it must be sincere.  

To lighten up a little on this rather serious topic, here is an example of how not to apologise.

A friend has two children, an older boy named Ryan and a daughter, Violet.  One day she heard Ryan calling Violet “Stupid”.  She stepped in and told Ryan to apologise.  At first he resisted, then finally he realised he did need to apologise and said “Violet, I am sorry that you are stupid”.   

 4.     Plan to fix

If possible, develop a plan to fix the mistake.  Not all mistakes can be fixed. If this is the case at least develop a plan to recover to normal operations. Additionally develop a plan to ensure that it cannot happen again. Take your manager through your plans and ask if they have any other suggestions.

Sometimes, it may be beneficial for you to develop a couple of different alternatives about how you can fix the mistake.  By being proactive with solutions, it can help reduce the impact to your career.

 5.     Communicate

Depending on what type of mistake has been made, it may be needed to be communicated to others, perhaps team members, colleagues, management, customers, or suppliers. Take ownership of the communication if you can. You can control how the message is communicated much better if you are doing it or involved in the communication plan. 

Remember to apologise genuinely to all those who have been impacted.

 6.     Learn

Each mistake is an opportunity to grow.  After the mistake is fixed, it is important to learn the lessons from the mistake and to ensure you don’t make it again.

 7.     Move on

Once you have learned the lessons, it is now time to move on from the mistake.  I have usually found it was good to tell my team I had a made a mistake.  This helped create a culture of openness and teamwork where they too, felt comfortable to tell me when they made mistakes. With this open culture of teamwork, I also found fewer mistakes were made. It is important that you don’t make light of the mistake or act like it was no big deal.

In my experience, everyone makes mistakes however those who handle the mistake well, move beyond the mistake without a negative impact on their career.

Making mistakes is part of growth and doing things differently and taking risks.  Not everything will work out but move forward as quickly as you can.


I welcome your suggestions

What are your suggestions to reduce the impact on, or to enhance, a person’s career after they have made a mistake?  


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