Messed Up at Work? Here's What to Do | What to Do If You Messed Up at Work

Your heart is racing. You can’t believe you just messed up at work. You’re certain that the boss is about to barge into your office demanding your resignation.

Take a deep breath. We’ve all been there. Whether you hit “reply all” on your snarky response about the clients meant only for your trusted coworker or pressed “publish” on your weekly newsletter with an obvious typo in the headline, you aren’t the first person to make that mistake, and you won’t be the last.

Of course you’re mortified, and that’s good. It will encourage you to be more careful and circumspect next time around. But the best response isn’t hiding in your proverbial shell. Instead, own your mistake, work to correct it, learn to laugh about it and move on.

Here are five tips about how to fix your mistakes when you mess up at work so that you can turn that error into a positive learning experience and ultimately set yourself apart as a mature employee.

1. Own it and Solve It

Ok, so you’ve already hit “send” and that recall email option never works as well as it should. You’ve got to deal with the issue now. Don’t let it fester, and don’t wait for someone else to notice. You’ll prove that you’re conscientious by coming to your boss with the problem first.

However, don’t just present the problem to your boss or coworkers. Come with the solution as well.

For example, you could say “I’ve double booked the conference room today. Since Client A is here for a quicker follow-up meeting, let’s put them in the conference room right now. Since Client B hasn’t been here before, I’ll give them a tour of our office and stop to make everyone coffee, then set them up in my office. If we put two team members in each meeting, I’m sure we can cover both meetings easily.”

Once you’ve solved it, be sure to show appreciation to the coworkers who helped you out of the sticky situation by writing a thank you note, giving a small gift or by sharing your positive feedback with their supervisor. Showing your gratitude will illustrate your team mentality and help everyone to move on.

2. If Appropriate, Make a Joke

Depending on the type of mistake and your office environment, you can show your mettle by making a joke of the muck up. Send a quick follow up email that says “I used to think I’d use a time machine to go back to yesterday and play the winning lottery numbers. Now I know that I’d go back five minutes ago and never send that email. Please ignore it, and I’ll be sending a corrected follow up shortly.”

Of course, if you work in a straight-laced office or if the screw up was massive, humor isn’t appropriate. In that case, joking around will seem dismissive, so judge your audience wisely. Another no-no is joking before the problem is solved, which might make you seem flippant or unapologetic. So solve the problem first, and laugh about it later.

3. Put a Plan in Place so it Doesn’t Happen Again

One-off mistakes happen to all of us. But make the same mistake a couple of times, and it becomes a pattern — one that might end up harming your career opportunities or show up on your annual review.

Ask yourself, “Why did this happen and how can I stop it from happening again?” Work to address those root causes. Sure, you don’t want to relive your mistake, but that is the only way to grow from it.

If you were guilty of a spelling faux pas, for example, you can set up Outlook so that it won’t send any message containing a spelling error without your approval. If you blew a deadline, place the next deadline date in the header of project documents and calendar, with reminders set to warn you of the impending cutoff date. You can tell your boss about the safeguards you put in place to ensure them that you’re capable of learning from mistakes and moving on.

With the speed of the modern workplace on overdrive and reports indicating that about half of workers have unrealistic goals for projects, even if you haven’t made a mistake yet, the stage is set for over-worked and stressed out employees to falter.

Think proactively about safeguards you can put in place now to account for common areas of anxiety and pressure. For example, if you’ve caught yourself making the same writing mistakes in early drafts, write out a brief style guide and tape it to your desk. That way, you can easily reference those tips and avoid mistakes before they happen.

4. Work to Erase the Mistake with Coworkers and Supervisors

The best way to put your mistake behind you is to keep on killing it at your job. After seeing your habitual stellar performance, your office mates will remember your team-first attitude and professional consistency more than they remember that one mistake you had a few weeks back.

So use your mistake as motivation to re-commit to professional excellence. Don’t let a good mistake get wasted. It could be an unexpected turning point for your career.

5. Forgive Yourself and Move On

Perhaps the hardest thing to do is forgive ourselves and move on. If you continue to berate yourself, your confidence and work will suffer. Ensure that this mistake was a one-off error by addressing it in the moment and then moving on, without reliving the mistake every day. Be kind to yourself and you’ll reap professional and personal rewards.

No matter your field of expertise, if there is one thing all professionals have in common, it’s that we’ve made mistakes at work. The difference makers are those who can learn from those blunders, solve them and move on to become even more successful.

What was your most embarrassing workplace mistake? Share your office mishaps and how you fixed them by commenting below. For more workplace advice and resources for growing your career, subscribe to the Punched Clocks newsletter.

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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