Whether you missed a major client meeting, accidentally sent an unflattering response to “Reply All” or had one too many at the office party, you may feel your only option is to quietly resign and start over someplace new. But, you may be relieved to know you likely have many more options available.
Here’s what to do if you find yourself on the tail end of of an out-of-character mistake at work:
Don’t catastrophize. It’s easy for our brain to blow things out of proportion when we’re in a state of panic. But the “worst cast scenario” our mind can muster is usually much darker than what is actually likely to happen. Take a deep breath and seek out an objective opinion before deciding your career is finished. Chances are, even if it’s bad, you are not doomed to live shunned and unemployed for eternity.
Own it. Bad news is best coming from the source, rather than a third party. If you face the music quickly, it won’t look like you’re trying to hide anything or defer blame. Plus, once you say it out loud, some of the burden will be lifted. Yes, it will now feel real, but you won’t be carrying a secret while spinning out of control imagining the worst. Once you fess up, you’ll know what kind of reaction you’re actually dealing with.
Make amends. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to apologize. If that’s the case, do so sincerely and profusely. Other times, you may be able to replace or repay the debt or work overtime to fix the issue. Be open and ask others the best way to make it up to them. Don’t assume. In certain cases, it may be most helpful to keep your distance for a period of time until the situation blows over.
Assess the bigger picture. Mistakes are often a sign that something deeper is going on, so it’s worth understanding the reason it happened. Is life unusually stressful at the moment? Are you fed up with the job, not getting enough sleep, trying to juggle too many clients, or preoccupied with other matters? If the situation is particularly out of character, looking at it from 35,000 feet may offer valuable insight into why it happened in the first place.
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Be patient. It can take time to regain trust, but if you’ve been a solid performer, chances are you have some positive karma in the bank and it won’t take as long as you think. In fact, you may find some co-workers sympathizing by sharing their own past tales of woe. If you’ve learned that there is a larger issue that contributed to the snafu, partner with your boss to get what you need to be successful (e.g., time off, extra help, etc.). Helping you course correct is preferable to replacing you, so don’t be surprised to learn they’re willing to collaborate if they see you’re eager to go above and beyond.
Remember, you’re human. It can be tempting to continue to beat yourself up even after you’ve made amends and moved on. Humans tend to allow achievements to be fleeting, while letting their mistakes define them. Your error is simply that – a mistake, not a definition of who you are. We’d all be in trouble if we allowed ourselves to be defined by our worst moments, so find the same compassion for yourself that you’d likely find for a friend facing a similar challenge.
What if it’s beyond repair? If there is clear fault and the company decides the best course of action is to part ways, accept the consequences and prepare to move forward. Depending on the situation, your employer may agree to permit you to resign, which will make your job search less awkward when asked why you’re looking for new employment. It’s worth finding out if this is an option.
If a mistake does cost you your job, learn from it, and establish a plan to not allow it to happen again. It may feel like it’s the end of the world, especially if you lose your license or are unable to continue working in the same field, but a mistake can only defeat, or define, you if you allow it to. Engage your support system, take time to focus on your positive qualities and get creative.
As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, so pour the newfound strength and wisdom into your new career and you just may find a gift among the chaos.