What to do when you really screwed up at work

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My seatmate flying into Charlotte from Detroit the other day was a very glum-faced guy tapping away fervently at his Macbook.

He was clearly struggling with an email, starting, stopping, deleting all, and starting again. His heavy sighs created a giant cloud around our seats. Finally I asked him what was giving him so much trouble.

An engineer, he’d overlooked a key component of an assignment jeopardizing timely delivery to a client, he said. Translated: A big problem.   While he’d already enlisted support from team members to bail him out of his immediate dilemma, he was worried about longer term effects on his career. How do you overcome a big mistake at work? he asked the Boomer.

We’ve all been there I told him and then shared an observation I’d used hundreds of times in my 25 year career in human resources: “People will long remember how you reacted, well after they forget what it was you were reacting to.”

The point here is this: What comes after the mistake is the key to restoring confidence and trust of bosses, coworkers, and clients impacted by your actions.

While everyone makes mistakes at work, some mistakes can be “CLMs” – Career Limiting Moves – if not properly addressed. Excluding the obvious from this discussion – dishonesty, theft, flagrant policy violations – recovering from errors in judgment, poor behavior, not following instructions, and/or just plain dumb moves, doesn’t have to be a disaster.

In my experience (I once congratulated someone on a promotion I processed that, unknown to me, was rescinded by a higher up) immediately owning up and notifying all involved as to the error, identifying actual and anticipated consequences, and proposing solution steps goes a long way to mitigating the situation.

Showing genuine humility and acknowledging you screwed up – and will learn from it – is also a good move. Finally, circle back after the dust has settled a bit to see if there is additional corrective action needed and more learning to gain.

Avoid the blame game at all costs – even if your screw up is part of a collective effort.

As a former HR guy, I was privy to witnessing the fallout of many poor “group think” decisions that fared badly for those involved. Invariably those that owned up to their mistakes — without throwing coworkers under the bus (though they could have) — were typically given the chance to right their mistakes and get on with life.

Above all, hold your head high. This won’t be your first career hiccup. Seek advice from others who have been there or a trusted mentor.

Be aware that recovery and what comes next is more important than what is in the rear-view mirror.

Photo: Charlotte Observer file