Dear Orna: Last week I made a big mistake at work; fortunately, I caught it before it went out the door. But what if I didn't? What is the best way to handle a mistake when you know it's your fault? - - Signed: Doing My Best.
Dear DOING MY BEST: There's an old saying: "It's not the crime that kills you, it's the cover up!" Everyone makes mistakes. It's called being human. But mistakes can be detrimental to your job. How you handle the mistake will determine if you will lose your job or earn the respect of those around you.
Always own your mistake. Admit it as quickly as possible. Explain it and apologze, especially if it has impacted others or the business. Owning your mistake shows that you hold yourself accountable and this is the best way to build trust and credibility.
Calmly Approach Your Boss
When you explain the issue to your boss, be calm! Your demeanor will rub off on him. If you are agitated, he will be too. Project a sense of urgency, but control your emotions. Any mistake will have fewer repercussions if you immediately diffuse it with both an admission and a suggestion on how to fix it. Be pro-active and come up with a few ideas on how to to fix the problem if you can. But be open to their feedback. If you've gotten yourself into this mess, you might need help getting out of it.
Resist the Urge to Share the Blame
Even if you are part of a group or team project, resist the urge to share the blame where it's not due. This will only worsen the situation and will lead your co-workers to mistruct you in the future. If you are responsible for a project or situation, do not try to wriggle out of the responsibility for the mistake or share the blame. Suck it up and take full responsibility. Anything other than a genuine apology will only make things worse.
You May Lose Your Job
Some mistakes are fatal. If you steal, harass your co-workers or bad-mouth the company to important clients . . . you have probably made a fatal mistake and in all likelyhood will lose your job. But if you made an honest mistkake - forgot to include key information in a proposal, made an error in judgement or overlooked important factors - most likely your boss will forgive you.
Your boss will be interested to see how you handle this stressful sitatuion. He will want to know that you were honest when you admitted the error and were sincere in your desire to fix it.
Handle the situation well and you will ean the respect of your manager and co-workers.