How to handle mistakes at work

Businesswoman not being polite
When was the last time you messed up?

Ask anyone with a job and they’ll probably have at least a couple of horror stories about times they totally dropped the ball at work. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it probably will at some point (sorry, that’s just the way it goes).

Luckily, the difference between a big mistake and a really big mistake is how you handle it. Here’s how to get it right:

Talk to your manager

Unless you’re 100% confident that you can fix the mistake quickly and discreetly, your manager should be your first port of call. Supporting you when things get tough is part of their job – and that includes the times when you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If the problem is too big to put right immediately, your manager should be able to help with damage control; whether that means placating an angry customer or just offering advice.

Worrying about being disciplined shouldn’t put you off (one mistake is pretty unlikely to get you fired) but if it does, remember that knowing when to acknowledge your mistakes takes courage – and that it’s a lesson most of us learn the hard way. Besides, your manager will definitely have been in the same boat at some point

Be honest

It’s always a good idea to tell your customers or colleagues directly that there’s a problem, rather than letting them find out from another source. Generally speaking, you should try to come clean as soon as you can but not before you have all the facts.

For example, say you’re working in retail and forgot to place an order for some important sales stock. Think about the kind of questions people will have: how much are we missing? If we place a new order now, how quickly will it arrive? When do we need the stock? Coming to the table with these already answered makes you look much more on-the-ball than “I don’t know”.

Also (while this hopefully goes without saying) don’t lie about what happened or whose fault it was; it will come back to bite you.

Solutions first, apologies later

The best way to get yourself out of the dog house is action; people don’t want to know that you’re sorry, they want to know what you’re going to do about it.

Give concrete examples of how you’re fixing the problem; “we’re working on it and will keep you updated” is fine in a pinch, but communicating transparently and in detail will give people much more confidence in you.

Following through on the steps you’ve laid out is equally important, and so is keeping the relevant people updated throughout; no news is definitely not good news when things are going wrong.

Once you’ve worked everything out, it’s time to make your apologies and thank people for their patience (yes, even if they weren’t patient).

Prevention is better than cure

Once the initial crisis is over, take some time to reflect on what happened and what you could have done to prevent it. Are there any checks you can put in place or skills you can improve to stop it happening again?

Again, this is where it’s a good idea to talk to your manager – especially if you believe your mistake was due to being overworked or not adequately trained – however, always be honest with them (and yourself) about where the blame lies.

Remember that it happens to everyone

This probably goes without saying, but we’re all human and we all get things wrong. As long as you did everything you could to make amends, no one can ask anything more of you.

Even the biggest mistakes get forgotten about in time, and you’ll probably linger on it far longer than anyone else will.

Jen Anderson writes for Inspiring Interns, which helps career starters find the perfect job, in everything from sales jobs to marketing internships. To browse their graduate jobs London listings, visit their website.

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