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How to Handle Mistakes at Work

two employers interviewing a candidate

“No, no, no, no, no! This can’t be happening! Please tell me this is not happening!”

Yep. It happens. It happens all the time, every day, to people all around the world, and it eventually happens to everybody. The tricky part, as you may have guessed, is dealing with it in the right way.

The most important thing to keep in mind throughout the whole process is not to panic. Panicking won’t help you solve the problem. Imagine watching a sitcom where a character made a mistake, panicked, and then did a bunch of foolish stuff that made everything worse. There’s a lesson: when you panic, mistakes turn into catastrophes. So you’re not going to panic.

Now. Here are five questions you might be asking right now, and five answers that can help you make the right decisions.

Should I tell my boss about a mistake I made at work?
Probably. There are some understandable reasons why you might not want to tell your boss about a mistake, but they usually lead to more trouble. Let’s pick them apart one by one:

  • If it turns out the mistake is actually minor, I’ll feel silly for mentioning it, and I’ll lose respect for my ability to handle small issues without help.

    This is a best-case scenario! Don’t worry about looking silly. If you mention a mistake to your boss, and there’s an easy solution, you’ll solve the problem easily, earn trust from your boss as somebody who’s honest and asks the right questions, and learn a new job skill in the process. Tell your boss!

  • I might be able to fix this. Maybe they’ll never know.

    How much are you willing to bet on that “maybe?” Remember that your boss probably has their job because they used to be really good at your job. So before you try to fix something, ask an expert about the best way to go about it (your boss is the nearest expert). By asking your boss for help, you’ll solve the problem better, earn a reputation as somebody who cares about doing things the right way, and potentially something new in the process. Tell your boss!

  • If it’s too big of a mistake, I could get in serious trouble.

    You might. But the amount of trouble you could get in for admitting to your error now, pales in comparison to the trouble you could get in later for pretending it didn’t happen. Walking away from a problem and expecting your current job to be a good reference for you in the future rarely works out. And yes, maybe you’ll get in trouble, but you’ll also be seen as honest, accountable and responsible. Definitely tell your boss!

Your situation might seem bad now, but it could be worse. Tell your boss what happened.

How should I tell my boss I made a mistake at work?
You’ve made a mistake, and that mistake has caused a problem that must be addressed. In telling your boss about the mistake you’ve made, it’ll be most important to deal with the problem it’s caused.

Assigning blame never solves a problem in progress. Whether you’re pointing the finger elsewhere or apologizing and begging for forgiveness, the problem is still the problem, and still needs to be solved. Accept responsibility for it, apologize sincerely and briefly, describe what you did, and work with your boss to address the issue at hand.

In the initial conversation you have with a manager about a mistake you made, be direct and honest. Don’t try to soften the blow or escape blame for your actions. If the problem doesn’t require immediate attention before it gets worse, think of a few ways you’d solve the problem, so you can suggest these if asked. Concentrate on solving the problem first.

By showing you’re more concerned about the effects your mistake will have on other people — customers, vendors, co-workers, shareholders, etc. — than on your self, you’ll demonstrate that you’re an employee worth holding onto.

What should I do to fix the problem after making a mistake at work?
Assuming you’ve already told your boss what happened (that’s step one), how you’ll solve the problem will vary according to your specific circumstances.

Coming clean about exactly what you did, and describing it in detail, is usually an important part of the process. You may need to do this multiple times, to more than one person or in writing. Be available.

You may also be asked what you did to solve the problem. Explain what you did, or explain why some of the solutions you thought of seemed imperfect, and why you felt you needed an expert opinion.

Remember that you know more about the immediate context of your mistake than anybody else, and your ability to communicate that knowledge will be important to the resolution. Also keep in mind that you’re still a useful team member even though you’ve made a mistake, although it may be best to follow instructions, offer help and limit suggestions to those which aren’t being considered by others.

How can I regain trust after making a mistake at work?
Everybody makes mistakes. Dealing with them well can make a big difference in how you’re perceived. By responding to your mistakes in a direct and forthright manner, you will have gone a long way in rebuilding the trust you may have enjoyed previously. You might even have revealed yourself as a valuable and proactive employee.

Here are some other things you can do after the smoke has cleared:

  • Double-down on professionalism. Actions, not words, make the biggest difference in earning trust. The best way to build a reputation for dependability is to re-dedicate yourself to visible signs of trustworthiness — showing up on time, well-dressed and with a good attitude.

  • Make a plan on your own time, and share it. What will you do to make sure this doesn’t happen again? If you feel it would be helpful to learn certain skills, put this in your plan. If you were distracted or otherwise not at your best at the time you made your mistake, plan out how to avoid that state in the future. A simple list with bullet points will work fine. Then share this plan with your boss to show you’re working on it, and get their suggestions.

  • Take care of yourself. Everybody makes mistakes, but mistakes are more likely to happen when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, bored, sick or otherwise run down. If you were any of those things at the time of your mistake, remember that helping yourself to be fully alert and present is often a crucial part of being able to take care of others. You might need to be more proactive about addressing an issue in your personal life.

Will this mistake get me fired?
It’s possible. You may also be demoted, or find yourself managed with greater oversight for a time.

Regardless of what happens, you should keep two things in mind:

  1. Growth is hard, but failure is the best teacher. You will learn from this mistake, and grow as an employee as a result of it, either at this job or in a future position.

  2. Any manager or company that routinely fires employees simply for making mistakes, without giving them an opportunity to learn from them, might not be the best long-term fit anyway.

Dealing with the aftermath of a mistake at work is never fun, but with the right attitude, you can come out with a more solid relationship with your employer than you had before you messed up.

And if not? Reach out to an Aerotek recruiter to explore your options for your next position. Creating a career account is free, and experts are ready to help you.