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Recovering from a Work Mistake

Everyone messes up. But how you respond could make a difference in terms of the impact on your career.

A man climbing a ladder in a dark room.

Lisa Schott was running the human resources department at a Texas nursing home when the U.S. Department of Labor selected her facility for a random audit. The government was on the hunt for employers that had wrongly denied workers overtime pay and other benefits by misclassifying them under the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

Schott, who had been on the job for about a year when agency officials came knocking, says her mistake was not conducting her own compliance audit as soon as she came on board. It was a rookie error she still regrets more than 20 years later.

Everyone makes mistakes. But when you make a mistake at work, there is, unfortunately, no guarantee you’ll get a second chance.

Turns out Schott got off easier than many. The investigator found only one misclassified worker. And while her organization was still on the hook for several thousand dollars in fines, Schott’s supervisor took the incident in stride.

“I came to the table acknowledging my mistake and with a solution for how we would move forward,” she recalls. “I was lucky. My boss said he saw it as a learning opportunity and was appreciative that I had come clean.”

Not all bosses are as forgiving. Sharon Scibek was working for a government contractor in Maryland when she inadvertently included a newly hired executive’s job offer letter and salary information in a welcome e-mail she sent to the entire staff. She acknowledged the error immediately and apologized to the company’s owner, but he remained irate. More than a decade after the incident, she still recalls him bellowing across the room, “You’re fired!” 

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Everyone makes mistakes. But when you make a mistake at work, there is, unfortunately, no guarantee you’ll get a second chance. Your recovery likely depends more on the culture of the organization and the temperament of those at the top than on the error itself, career experts say. But with careful handling, you may be able to minimize the fallout for your career. Here are some expert tips.

Own Your Mistake and Learn from It

Honesty is the best policy, particularly when you’re at fault. Let your boss know when you’ve made a mistake, advises Schott, who now runs her own HR consultancy in Houston. 

Most importantly, learn from your mistake and take steps to ensure it won’t happen again. To show her boss she took legal compliance seriously, Schott implemented a schedule for self-audits. And when she moved on to other jobs, she made it a rule to conduct compliance audits within her first 45 days. 

Apologize Early and Often

Make amends immediately to everyone who was affected, advises Tara Vossenkemper, a therapist and business consultant in Columbia, Mo. Apologize in person when possible and ask those directly affected if there are steps you can take to minimize any difficulties your error may have created for them.

Keep Your Apology Short

Apologies should be brief and to the point, says Vicki Salemi, a career expert with online jobs site Monster. Beating around the bush is awkward for everyone “and could look like you’re hiding something,” she says. And don’t waste anyone’s time giving excuses for how the mistake happened. Instead, focus on making things right and preventing a recurrence.

Reflect on the Incident

Think about how and why the mistake happened, Salemi advises. If the error occurred because you were distracted, too busy or felt forced to cut corners, look for ways to address your workload. If you messed up doing work that was not a part of your skill set, get the training you need to do the job better. 

Vossenkemper recommends taking a hard look at whether making the mistake was a subconscious, emotional reaction to the job. 

“Turn inward and consider ‘Do I really want to stay in this job?’ ” she says. 

Accept Consequences but Track Improvements

Recognize that there may be career consequences from your mistake, such as the denial of a bonus or a promotion or, worse, being given a demotion, Salemi says. But plan your comeback by documenting your successes going forward so you can prove to your boss that you’ve learned from your mistake and are up to the job going forward.  

Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer in Falls Church, Va.

Illustration by Mike_Kiev/iStock.

If You Get Fired, or Are About to Be …

Let’s be real: There may be no coming back from some mistakes—at least not at the company where you made them. Here’s how to best deal with a situation that can’t be mended.

Read the writing on the wall. If your relationship with your supervisor is rocky and you suspect your job is on the line, look for other opportunities.

Sharon Scibek had been unhappy in her HR job for months and was already working with a recruiter when she sent out a problematic e-mail that got her fired. Coincidentally, she had a promising interview already lined up for the day after she was terminated. It went well, and she was hired as that company’s vice president of HR. 

Negotiate your departure. Even if you’re being pushed out, there may be opportunities to regain control before the door slams shut.

Rather than allowing your employer to dictate when and how you leave, try negotiating your own terms, advises Joe Mullings, who heads a recruiting firm in Delray Beach, Fla.

“You can say, ‘Look, you don’t want to terminate me. I will resign,’ ” he says. Remind your employer that by voluntarily stepping down, you will be freeing the company from the expense of unemployment insurance—and possible future litigation, he says. 

And don’t be shy about asking for severance pay and a decent recommendation; someone in the organization may feel badly about how things turned out and be willing to give you a break.

Grieve for your job loss, briefly. Getting fired can be traumatizing, especially if it was in response to a problem you caused or failed to prevent. “Allow yourself to feel bad, but not for too long,” says Judy Schoenberg, co-founder of EvolveMe, a career strategy firm based in New York City. 

Women, in particular, tend to have a running narrative that includes self-defeating thoughts such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m a fraud, and they never should have hired me,” she says. But it doesn’t help to beat yourself up endlessly. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend in the same situation. And remind yourself “that nobody died and that it’s not the end of the world,” Schoenberg says.

Be truthful and positive while interviewing. Don’t volunteer information about being fired during a job interview. But don’t lie about it if you’re asked.

Avoid stumbling during an interview by creating a positive narrative in advance that focuses on what you’ve done well in your career, Schoenberg advises. Keep in mind that “you are not the mistake,” she says. “You are the accomplishments that came before.” 

Build confidence in your interviewing skills by rehearsing with someone you trust, suggests Linda Lautenberg, EvolveMe’s other co-founder. You can also practice on your own by recording yourself on Zoom or just standing in front of a mirror. “The last thing you want during an interview is to come in feeling unconfident,” Lautenberg says, “or, even worse, feeling bitter.” —R.Z.


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