What to Do When You Make a Mistake at Work

Young frustrated man working on laptop

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As they say, everyone makes mistakes. In many situations, you can correct your error or just forget about it and move on. Making a mistake at work, however, is more serious. It can have a dire effect on your employer. It may, for example, endanger a relationship with a client, cause a legal problem, or put people's health or safety at risk. Repercussions will ultimately trickle down to you. Simply correcting your error and moving on may not be an option. When you make a mistake at work, your career may depend on what you do next. Here are the steps you can take:

Admit Your Mistake

As soon as you discover that something went awry, immediately tell your boss. The only exception is, of course, if you make an insignificant error that will not affect anyone or if you can fix it before it does. Otherwise, don't try to hide your mistake. If you do that, you can end up looking a lot worse, and others could even accuse you of a coverup. Being upfront about it will demonstrate professionalism, a trait most employers greatly value.

Present Your Boss With a Plan to Correct the Error

You will need to come up with a plan to rectify your mistake and present it to your boss. Hopefully, you will be able to put something together before you first approach her, but don't waste time if you can't.  Reassure her that you are working on a solution.

Then, once you know what you need to do, present it. Be very clear about what you think you should do and what you expect the results to be. Tell your boss how long it will take to implement and about any associated costs. Make sure to have a "Plan B" ready, in case your boss shoots down "Plan A." While making a mistake is never a good thing, don't miss the opportunity to demonstrate your problem-solving skills.

Don't Point Fingers at Anyone Else

In a team-oriented environment, there is a good chance other people were also responsible for the error. While people are typically thrilled to take credit for successes, they are reluctant to own mistakes. If you can, get everyone to approach your boss together to alert her that something has gone wrong.

Unfortunately, you might not be able to make that happen. There are going to be some people who say "it's not my fault." It won't help you to point fingers at others, even if they do share responsibility for the mistake. In the end, hopefully, each person will be held accountable for his or her own actions.

Apologize, but Don't Beat Yourself Up

There's a big difference between taking responsibility and beating yourself up. Admit your mistake but don't berate yourself for making it, especially in public. If you keep calling attention to your error, that is what will stick in people's minds.

You want your boss to focus on your actions after you made the mistake, not on the fact that it happened in the first place. Be careful about tooting your own horn, though. Bragging about how you fixed things will not only call attention to your original blunder, it could raise suspicions that you made a mistake so you could swoop in to save the day.

If Possible, Correct the Mistake on Your Own Time

If you are exempt from earning overtime pay, get to work early, stay late and spend your lunch hour at your desk for as long as it takes to correct your mistake. This won't be possible if you are a non-exempt worker since your boss will have to pay you overtime—1 1/2 times your regular hourly wage—for each hour you work over 40 hours per week. You certainly don't want to stir up more trouble by causing him to violate that requirement. Get your boss's permission if you have to work longer hours.