How to Professionally Own Up to Mistakes at Work

We’ve all been there - you accidentally ordered the wrong pizza topping or mistakenly posted your friend’s crazy weekend pics as public on Facebook. As embarrassing as those mistakes might be, you’re probably used to handling them by now. But what happens when you mess up at your job? Workplace mistakes are something schools and career advisors don’t really cover when going over networking tips or career advice. We tend to focus on how to play up our successes, especially online, but what about when we need to deal with our failures?

Talking about a mistake, whether it’s a simple slip up or something more serious, can be nervewracking in a professional. It’s natural to want to brush it under the table and just hope it goes away, but that often leads to an even bigger mess. Sometimes, catching something early can be the difference between keeping your job or not. Honesty is always the best policy, even if it can be daunting to follow.

Jasmine Cui, a student at SUNY Geneseo, recommends getting things off your chest sooner rather than later. “Apologize and be upfront. Let them know that you understand [your mistake]…even something as simple as ‘how can I fix this’ or ‘what can I do to make things right’ can make a world of difference.”

Coming forward ready to fix the problem shows your initiative and professionalism. Emily Dumas, a junior at Northern Arizona University, knows how important this is. “I’m planning on working in the hospitality industry and if I make a mistake and don’t own up to it as soon as I realized it happened, I could potentially put a guest in harm's way or ruin a family vacation,” she says. “The most professional thing to do would be to own up to your mistake so you can work to nix it before it escalates to a larger issue. Not only would this show you can take initiative, but you are also honest with your fellow coworkers.” [break up long quotes with dialogue tags]

Being a trustworthy employee is more valued than being perfect in most cases, especially when you’re just starting out in the company. While each situation is unique, there are a few ways to handle the situation post-realization.

Take a breather

According to Mitch Rufca, President and Founder of Rufca Recruiting and Professor in the LMU College of Business Administration, you should take a breather after realizing your mistake. He says, “Don’t try to overcompensate for the mistake. People tend to focus on the mistake which ends up putting a magnifying glass on it. Do what you can to correct it but don’t overdo it.” While it’s totally normal to freak out, it’s also important not to act emotionally and take time to figure out what’s going on.

There might be a way to easily fix the problem yourself, so before you go around telling everyone about what happened, think through any solutions you could work through on your own. If you do need to enlist help from others, only tell the people who absolutely need to know. By taking a minute to form your thoughts and get a game, you’ll be able to make a beeline straight for the person you need to speak to and clearly tell them about the problem. It’s even better if you can come to them with a solution already in mind. While they might have a different idea, it will make you look more in control if you come to the table with a suggestion.

Take time to think it over, but not too long

Stressing over a problem until you’re a nervous wreck won’t make admitting your error any easier. According to Rachel Petty, a recent grad from James Madison University, getting in front of the problem quickly made things go much smoother. “At my internship, I realized over the weekend that I had made a mistake on a client report. I wanted to alert my supervisor as soon as possible, so I sent her a text letting her know. We were able to figure it out and she was happy that I let her know as soon as I realized.”

Put in extra time

Actions speak louder than words. So, offer to put in extra time to contribute to the solution. It’s true that in some situations your employer may feel it’s best to handle the clean up without you, but staying late or coming in early to solve the problem will show your commitment to seeing the issue through to the end. According to Mitch Rufca, “if it could help fix what happened its appropriate to put in extra time.” Being a committed employee and going the extra mile will make it harder for your boss to use your mistake as a measurement of your overall work performance.  

Let it go

Finally, once the issue is resolved, or you’ve done everything you can to make amends, learn to let it go. Harping on one bad day can actually be worse long-term than the original mishap.

Rufca recommends that showing you learned from the incident goes farther than constantly dwelling on it. He says, “I’d rather someone shows that they’ve learned from a mistake going forward.”

Letting your thoughts become preoccupied with a past issue, will only lead to more mistakes! Come back to your job the following day, or week, confident and ready to focus on the future. The best way to avoid making future mistakes is to forgive yourself first.

Dropping the ball every now and then is human, and while the stakes might be higher at work, it’s still important to employ the same basic communication principles we use with our friends. Such as, being direct and open, admitting our mistakes, and forgiving ourselves in order to move forward. At the end of the day, keeping it all in perspective is the best way to handle anything from a small misstep to a big doozy.