How to Recover From a (Big) Mistake at Work

Written on 3/17/2008 by Cathy from Chief Family Officer.

Unfortunately, mistakes happen. Sometimes, big mistakes happen. I recently had to handle one at the office. I’m an attorney, and the mistake I made was partly the result of an error in judgment on my part, and partly the result of a lack of communication from my bosses. The mistake: I missed a filing deadline, a BIG filing deadline.

I discovered the missed deadline three days after it had passed, when I checked my email upon arriving home from work. I felt embarrassment and horror as I realized the error in judgment that I had made. I felt anger at my bosses for their lack of communication and failure to tell me that this filing might be coming and that I should keep an eye out for it. I also felt helpless as I realized that the error in judgment would be a stain on my reputation and record for some time to come.

After a few minutes, I realized that I wasn’t entirely helpless; there were some things I could do to minimize the damage that my error had caused. While I hope you don’t need to utilize these tips, I think you’ll find them helpful if you find yourself in a similar situation:

  1. Take responsibility. Upon realizing the error that had occurred, I resisted the temptation to bury my head in the sand and instead immediately called my bosses’ attention to the problem and apologized.
  2. Take initiative. Even though I had the next day off (it was a Friday before a long weekend), I went into the office. Early. As soon as I arrived at the office, I took as many actions as I could to start solving the problem. My bosses weren’t in yet, but there were some things I could do to begin the process of asking the court for an extension of the filing deadline.
  3. Act quickly. Once my bosses arrived, I updated them on the work I had already done. I then worked hard to get the extension filed as quickly as possible. It was done by mid▴morning.
  4. Do good work. I got the filing done by the extended due date, and I even received compliments on the quality of work that I did on it.

It’s too soon for me to know the long-term impact of this mistake and in fact, I’m concerned that it might affect whether I get a promotion that I’ll be eligible for in a couple of years. However, I can already tell that the actions I took immediately following the mistake have helped to significantly mitigate its effects.

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