This is going to be an article about what to do when you make a mistake at work. Note that it is not an article about how to avoid making mistakes at work because, despite what some people might tell you, that is straight up impossible. Anybody who leads you to believe that they are some kind of superstar professional who never messes up is lying to you. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody! Your boss, your boss’s boss, that snotty account manager who’s always getting on your case about margin widths. Dollars to doughnuts they have all experienced that stomach-dropping ‘Jesus fuck, I am definitely getting fired. I am SUCH a MORON what the FUCK’ feeling. Unfortunately it’s pretty much inevitable, but the thing that not a lot of people tell you, is that what differentiates a great employee from a just-okay one is what you do once the mistake is made. Allow me to break it down for you.

You’re sitting at your desk, headphones on, happily working away, when an email pops up asking for that important thing you were supposed to do a week ago, or why that PSD got sent to the client with a huge glaring spelling mistake in it, or why Melissa in finance never got the receipt for that big important client lunch that you forgot to get a receipt for. Or any variety of scenarios, all ending the following way: in no particular order you will want to, vomit, cry, die, resign, go to the pub. Basically, it’s bad, it’s your fault. Shit!

Here’s what you’re NOT going to do:

  1. Panic. See above: everybody makes mistakes! Remember that you are not the first person to screw something up, and if your boss is any kind of reasonable human they will know that. If you feel the need, go to the bathroom, run the taps, think of the ocean and take a few deep breaths. You’re probably not going to get fired. Everything will be fine.
  2. Pretend it isn’t happening. Here’s how that plays out – Boss: ‘Did you see that email? Melissa needs that receipt’ You: ‘Hm? Sorry, I didn’t see it.’ Boss: ‘Okay, I’ll send it again. But she really needs it by tomorrow, can you make sure she gets it?’ You, internally: ‘BALLS!!!!!!’ Haven’t you seen Goodfellas? You can’t outrun your mistakes! And the longer you pretend it isn’t happening, the more likely it is that you’re going to look a bit shady when you do finally tell the truth about what’s happened.
  3. Make excuses. If you haven’t learned this lesson by now, it especially applies to work environments. As legitimate as you may think them to be, nobody wants excuses.
  4. Shift the blame to somebody else. The temptation to do this will be strong, because you really really really don’t want your boss to think you’re an idiot. Resist the temptation. You may get away with it but, really, everyone in the office will know who’s fault it was and all you’ll achieve in the end is announce yourself as a weasel to your colleagues. Nobody wants to work with a weasel, and that reputation sticks.

One of the most valuable things you can have to do your job well, is an understanding of what your boss believes is important. This is valuable for a number of reasons, but especially when you’ve screwed up massively and need to figure out what to do. All your boss wants to know at this point is what you’re going to do to fix it, and then what you’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So, before you do the professional and mature thing of ‘fessing up and taking responsibility for the mistake’, take a beat to think about what sensible solutions are possible that you can do to make it right. Can you work late that day to make up for the missed deadline? Is it about fixing the spelling mistake and sending an updated version of the PSD to your client? Even if in the end your boss wants to go with a different solution, what’s important is that you had the foresight to think of a possible and sensible fix before running to them with the problem.

Now I don’t know your boss, so I can’t give you an exact template for how best to approach them. And, obviously, depending on the scale of error you will need to use your judgement on whether or not they actually need to know about it (this is where understanding your boss’s priorities comes in handy). If it is something that is likely to impact budgets, deadlines, your client, or someone higher up is kicking off about it, they will probably want to know, immediately. If it is something that they are going to find out about whether it comes from you or not, your best bet is to tell them yourself before someone else does.

So, assuming that you have decided you are going to tell the boss you made a mistake, here is what needs to happen. By whichever medium suits (again, use your best judgement for this one), you tell them as clearly as you can about what you have done wrong and that you are very, very sorry! Then tell them what you are able to do to fix it, and ask if they have any other preferences on what to do to make it right. Explain what you are going to do make sure it does not happen again, then get to work fixing the mistake. The most important thing you can do at this point is to actually do the things you told your boss you would, including the stuff to make sure it does not happen again.

So in summary, you messed up. It happens to the best of us, all you can do is move forward and be a grown up. Don’t try to hide your mess or nudge it on to somebody else’s desk. Just do what you can to make it right, and get on with your day. Then, like a true professional, get to the bar and tell your friends all about it. Tomorrow is a new day!