5 Things to Do When You Screw Up at Work

Woman frustrated at desk


Deborah Sweeney
Deborah Sweeney102
MyCorporation.com CEO
Pop quiz time! How do you feel when you make a mistake at work?
A. I could really use an invisibility power right about now…
B. According to my overactive imagination, I’m definitely going to lose my job for this.
C. Yikes! I feel embarrassed, but will work hard to quickly remedy the issue.
Your answer is probably a combination of the three options. Nobody, from interns to executive leaders, feels good when they make a mistake at work. However, an invisibility superpower won’t change that it happened; neither will imagining the worst case scenario that you will be fired on the spot. The best thing to do is fix the issue. How do you successfully confront it and come out on the other side feeling okay about your mistake?

1. Don’t panic.

After making a mistake, you may feel like it’s time to panic and imagine the worst case scenarios. Will I be fired for this? Does my boss hate me? Do my team members think I’m a mess? Will I be able to bounce back? Panicking after making a mistake clouds your judgment and keeps you from behaving in a mature manner. 
“If you start panicking and worrying about getting fired, you’re not going to be able to think clearly,” Ellen Mullarkey, VP of Business Development at Messina Staffing says. “You have to sit back, think about the solution, and figure out how you’re going to deal with it.”
Additionally, Mullarkey advises that in some cases, it may be okay not to run to your boss’ office and tell them what happened.
“I’ve seen this happen with new employees a lot where they think they made a huge mistake,” Mullarkey says. “They run to the manager’s office in tears, acting like they just destroyed the business. 99% of the time, that’s not the case. Nearly all mess-ups are fixable. Sometimes your mistake can be one you can fix on your own without calling attention to it.”

2. Own it.

The mistake has been made, the damage is done and the dust has settled. We all make mistakes, but not everyone admits to making them. More often than not, many will deny they made the mistake, lie or scapegoat someone else. All of this catches up to you in the end, so ultimately you must take responsibility for what happened.
Business coach Holly Knoll highly recommends owning up to your mistakes because it’s one of the fastest ways to make the situation better. Genuinely apologize for what happened and take full responsibility. 
“Owning your mistake shows professional maturity and self-awareness,” Knoll says. “You have to admit it whomever was impacted by your mistake and show that you truly regret your actions.”

3. Repair.

Admitting that you made the mistake and keeping your cool are the first steps for damage control. Now, you need to come up with a solution that will fix the mistake.
The solution, according to Knoll, should allow you to salvage the situation. You may be able to come up with a plan that ensures the mistake will not be made by you (or anyone else) in the future, and put that plan into practice.
Before you put it into practice, however, you need to be 100% certain this is the right thing to do. If you doubt your solution to fixing the mistake, Mullarkey advises asking a trusted colleague for advice. 
“If they have worked at the company longer than you, they might have encountered the problem before,” Mullarkey notes. “Even if they haven’t, they might be able to provide helpful input.”

4. Don’t share on social media.

This is a incredibly savvy bit of advice. How often do we see coworkers on Instagram sharing videos where they admit to messing up at work or blogging about their blunders? In theory, the practice should be a cathartic one where we all admit making mistakes is a part of being human. In reality, it the employee winds up positioned as a bit of a liability.
Carlota Zimmerman, J.D. warns against sharing mistakes made in the workplace on social media platforms. Remember that these sites are largely public. You never know who might be viewing your profile and is not thrilled you shared that information with your followers.
“You might think that what happened was minor, but that doesn’t mean your superiors do,” Zimmerman says. “Nothing is more aggravating than to see someone laughing off an issue that management finds in no way funny.”

5. Reflect.

You kept your cool, took responsibility for what happened, figured out a solution and practiced discretion with your mistake. Now, it’s time to reflect. No matter what you did, from arriving late to a meeting to accidentally CC’ing a ton of contacts on an email that should have been BCC’d, mistakes provide us with a great opportunity to learn. We made the mistake once and are now wiser in knowing it won’t happen again.

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