Some foolproof ways to get back in everyone's good graces.

Let's be honest: We all make mistakes at work. Some are an expected part of a normal learning curve —  unfortunate but easily forgivable. Yet, others can be true career deal breakers.

Consider this real-life story: I saw an intern get disqualified from an almost guaranteed full-time job offer at a large consulting firm because of a personal branding blunder. His mistake? He got a little carried away at a nighttime celebration during a 3-day company offsite, and as a result, he did not quite make it to his hotel room before deciding to take a short break, passing out in front of the elevators on his hotel floor while wearing a ball cap and a t-shirt with a prominent company logo. The next morning, he was discovered in this state by the managing partner of the firm. “Yikes!” does not begin to describe it; that's beyond a bad day at work!

While some missteps are truly cringe-worthy and near-fatal in terms of career prospects, most mistakes can be overcome with the right damage control. Salvaging your name does take some effort, but can be well worth it considering that you save yourself the trouble and expense by not having to change your identity and move to another country to be employable again. Here are six steps to take if you want to overcome work mistakes, reboot your professional reputation, and recover from having done something foolish.

Step 1: Assess the damage

Before we begin to fix the situation, let's get ourselves oriented. Are we looking at a case of hurt feelings or actual reputation damage?

Getting an accurate assessment may be easier said than done while you are entangled in the situation, so try to take a step back physically and mentally. Take a walk, talk to a trusted mentor or friend, or write down the facts of what happened. Your goal is to separate your experience and feelings about the blunder from the actual blunder.

Dealing with the emotional aspects of making mistakes at work is a considerable part of recovering from it. You may have to do some processing on your own: call your mom, cry and pound the wall in the privacy of your own home — whatever it takes to get yourself to the point of being able to constructively handle the fallout of a bad decision.  

Step 2: Face the facts

Once you have the facts of the situation straight, it is time to be completely honest about what happened. Everything that happens at work, good or bad, is co-created by a variety of forces. Not all of them are under your control, but you are an active player and contributor with a certain degree of influence. This is the time to own your part in what happened. Hiding from or ignoring it will only make it worse.

Here are some questions to help you frame your analysis:

  • What can you control?

  • What are you responsible for given your position and expectations set by your managers?

  • Where can you exert influence?

Step 3: Apologize and fix it

“Do I really have to?” Yes, you do. It's a critical part of repairing relationships and fixing things after making mistakes at work. If apologies are in order, make them quickly and sincerely. Apologizing is never fun, but it is a critical part of repairing working relationships. I understand that sometimes making an apology requires you to put aside your pride and that making a public apology can be intimidating. Do it anyway.

An insincere apology has a way of making the situation worse, so I recommend giving it some thought before you go into the conversation. Make it thoughtful and short and begin with an attitude of sincerity (most bosses can spot a phony apology a mile away).

Avoid the dreaded “I am sorry, but…” opening — it is likely to be seen as a way to avoid responsibility. Don't try to explain the mistake or distribute the blame onto others; simply own what happened and speak to the ways you will handle the situation differently in the future. Here are two examples:

“I am sorry that I missed the deadline. I realize that it reflects poorly on the entire team, and I feel terrible about having let you down. I can complete my portion of the report by the end of day tomorrow. Would that be okay or would you rather see what I have in draft form right now?”

“I am sorry that I lost my temper during the client meeting. What I said was unprofessional and could cost our team the client relationship. I was wrong to speak like that. I will work on keeping my cool in stressful situations. Would you like me to call the client and offer her an apology?”

As you can see from the examples, sometimes words alone won't undo the mistake. You may have to step in and fix it. That can mean putting in extra hours to re-do the work or catch up to a deadline. Come prepared with a solution and an assurance that you will do everything to not let this happen again. If you are going to need help from other team members, make that clear and propose a plan.

A quick side note: If there is a possibility, however remote, of a lawsuit over your mistake, speak with an attorney before you say anything to anyone.

Related: 5 Habits That Can Harm Your Career

Step 4: Learn from your blunders

It can be helpful to look at your missteps in search of a pattern. What caused you to make mistakes at work and what can you manage better? Perhaps you discover that you tend to lash out at criticism. Maybe your temper grows short in stressful meetings. Maybe you need a better system of reminders for managing deadlines. Or maybe you have a history of accepting additional assignments to the point where you could not possibly manage the extra workload, leading to mistakes, missed deadlines, and disappointed project managers.

Look at the big picture to identify recurring habits that can be changed for better outcomes in the future. The fix could be as easy as having a snack before big meetings to better manage your energy and attention levels, or it could involve more work around self-control in situations where you feel judged.

Step 5: Don't dwell on it

Taking your mistake seriously and learning from it is one thing — but pitching a tent in “woe-is-me” land is not likely to be constructive. Do the next thing that must be done and remember my favorite definition of compassion: right action at the right time. Resolve to do better in the future and move on.

Step 6: Take care of your personal brand going forward

Taking charge of your personal brand is a full-time job, and in many ways, appearances shape reality. It is a good idea to manage your reputation proactively. We have all read the advice along the lines of “If you would be embarrassed to say/post/do something in front of your parents or boss, don't do it,” and following that policy can save you from having to scramble to rescue your self-esteem or job.

Beyond following email and internet etiquette, approach every day at work as an opportunity to nurture your personal brand. There is no such thing as a “small project” or an “unimportant conference call with a client.”  Treat every task and every conversation like it matters because it does. Your professional reputation is certainly highlighted by big accomplishments and milestones, but its core is made up of the mundane daily tasks. Don't underestimate their importance.

You don't want your resume making a fool of you during your job search. Make sure it's highlighting your best traits with a free resume critique!

Recommended Reading:

Related Articles: