How to Recover if You Screwed Up on the Job

Joe Weinlick
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While it's comforting to know everyone makes mistakes, it's less comforting when you're the one actually at fault. Stress can really start to set in when it's a mistake at work, particularly one that has negative consequences for other people, such as colleagues. How you deal with a mistake is just as important as the problem itself; by reacting appropriately and demonstrating professional behavior, you can curtail the impact on both your company and career.

Own Up Quickly

When you make a mistake at work, take a moment to assess the situation. If the error has the potential to cause significant problems, or if the solution is something you can't handle on your own, it's important to make a fast confession. Go straight to your boss to explain the situation. Explain what you plan to do to fix the mistake, and ask for help or guidance on any additional tasks. Apologize for your actions, but don't dwell or bring in excessive emotion. By owning up quickly, you can minimize the ripple effect of your mistake on other people in the company.

Take Corrective Action

In some situations, a mistake at work can be handled quickly and without assistance. When that's the case, take immediate action to resolve the problem. Then, examine the situation from all angles to identify the possible ramifications of your mistake, and take steps to prevent them. Once you are satisfied that everything is under control, go to your boss with a confession and an explanation of your corrective actions. Although he may be frustrated at the mistake, the fact that you took the initiative to solve the problem can ease the consequences.

Don't Shift Blame

When a mistake at work is partly the fault of others, it can be tempting to shift the blame. Before you rat out a colleague, however, consider the situation. Are you bringing up another person's name simply to minimize your mistake? Would your actions have caused the same problem regardless of a co-worker's actions? If the answer is yes, the best option is to accept full responsibility. Doing so can avoid animosity and create loyalty among your team members. Provide a full explanation if another person directly caused you to make a mistake, if that person's actions have the potential to damage your career, or if your boss must be alerted to the root of the problem for safety or legal reasons.

Behave Impeccably

After a mistake at work, it's not uncommon to find yourself under close scrutiny. A serious mistake can make your superiors doubt your abilities and attention to detail, even when you have an otherwise perfect track record. Set their minds at ease by maintaining impeccable professional behavior in the ensuing days and weeks. If your mistake was the result of a skills gap or a weak understanding of policy, take steps to build your abilities in that area. Most importantly, have patience — rebuilding trust takes time and effort.

Although a mistake at work can be embarrassing, it rarely means the end of your career. A measured, thoughtful response can help you minimize damage and maintain a professional reputation.

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at


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