In a perfect world, every internship or job you take on will be handled professionally and successfully. You’ll leave with a handful of references and connections that you can use later on for advice, letters of recommendations or even a job. Of course, that doesn’t always happen, does it, collegiettes™?
Whether or not you choose to admit it, there are probably some skeletons hidden somewhere deep inside your professional closet–-an internship you always showed up late (and left early) to, a co-worker who found out you were talking about her behind her back, an instance where you quit without a two week (or even two hour) notice. It’s easy to forget about these skeletons and let them collect dust, but the truth is, it’s hard to get ahead in your career when you’ve already burned some of the bridges that might bring you to a better location. But don’t worry—with some hard work, bridges can be repaired. Her Campus has the how-to on getting you back on the right track.
DO admit you made a mistake
Apologizing is humbling for everyone, but don’t let any ego get in the way of saying “I’m sorry.” As difficult and awkward as it might be to apologize for whatever career mishap occurred, you will ultimately feel better.
Lindsay, a University of Florida senior, had to eat a slice of humble pie after leaving a coveted public relations internship—without notice. She kept running into the company she scorned after getting a different internship with a magazine.
“The publishing industry and marketing industry are so closely linked. I was having to email the people whose emails I had avoided a year earlier,” said Lindsay. “I was showing up to their events and would just be like, ‘Hiiiii,’ but inside I wanted to die.” Finally, the embarrassment that Lindsay felt was too much for her to take.
“I knew I was going to feel awkward about confronting them, but I felt a thousand times more awkward seeing them and pretending like everything was fine,” she says. Lindsay went up to her former supervisor at an event and apologized for her behavior a summer earlier, explaining that she realized how unprofessional it was.
“I basically said that I was young and stupid and hope that my past behavior wouldn’t hurt us working together in the future. I think she was really surprised that I had the guts to confront her. She said she appreciated it.”
The world is a small place (that Disney ride isn’t lying) and your reputation and networking are important. Lindsay’s former supervisor might not be willing to write her a shining letter of recommendation anytime soon, but chances are she’ll now remember Lindsay as the girl who put away her ego and had the courage to apologize, rather than the girl who ran away scared and unprofessionally.
DO address the issue sooner rather than later
If you made a major mistake, it might feel easier to wait until the last day you have to see your boss to address the issue. Apologizing for something two months earlier not only jogs your boss’s memory (they might have totally forgotten about the time you sent out a professional email riddled with spelling errors by now), but it also makes you seem lazy.
Loretta Livinghouse has worked in sales for Estee Lauder, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Timesand has dealt with many apologetic co-workers and interns.
“I had one intern who sent me an apology letter the last day of her internship for something that had occurred months earlier,” says Livinghouse. “Don’t waste any time addressing a mistake. They sooner, the better.” Livinghouse suggests apologizing face to face, but says that an email apology is appropriate for smaller mishaps, like showing up late one day.
DON’T apologize for every mistake you make
Your wrongdoings might be bigger in your head than they are in reality. Is the worst thing you did at your internship or job show up 15 minutes late one day? Was your biggest mishap a spelling error in one email? When it comes to tiny details like this, just keep your mouth shut. If you apologize for them, you might make your supervisor or boss forget about all your successes and focus on your tiny mistakes, instead.
“I had one employee who would apologize for any little thing they did,” says Livinghouse. “A lot of the things they apologized for I didn’t even realize they did—until they brought it to my attention. Are you late every day? Acknowledge that you’re messing up. Were you stuck in traffic one day and showed up a half hour late? I probably hardly noticed. Choosing not to make a habit out of something sometimes speaks louder than actual words.”
Bugging your supervisor or boss with every little thing you did wrong can actually leave a worse taste in their mouth than anything. Instead, choose to only acknowledge the major issues.
DON’T forget to say you’re sorry for gossiping—no matter what
Showing up late, producing subpar work—that’s one thing. Gossiping about your boss or a co-worker? That’s a whole different issue.
“When I was first starting out at Estee Lauder, a co-worker heard that I was talking badly about them,” says Livinghouse. “You can’t ignore those things and assume someone will forget. If you hurt someone’s feelings, they will always remember that.”
Of course, things like professional emails and showing up on time are important, but it’s also important to remember that your bosses, supervisors and co-workers are human too. If you get caught running your mouth, acknowledge it right away before the match is lit against your gasoline-soaked bridge.
The best thing to do when you’ve burned a bridge is to go back to the scene of the crime. Acknowledge your wrongdoings and swallow your piece of humble pie. Hopefully, your former boss or co-worker will appreciate the courage that takes and accept your apology.
Have you burned a bridge at work or your internship—and we were able to fix it? Tell us in the Comments section below!
Lindsay, University of Florida, Class of 2012