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Make a Mistake at Work? When and How to Say You're Sorry

written by: Andrea Campbell•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 11/2/2012

Making a mistake at work causes you to become the ultimate team player. You'll need to dig deep, analyze your error and assess the damage. You can’t make amends until you understand the repercussions of your actions. Whether a minor oversight or a muddle, here is the process on how to say "sorry."

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    The Sinners

    What's the best way to handle yourself when you make a mistake at work? In the brash work environment of today, we hear about authors lying in books, financial thievery of huge proportions, acquisitions and layoffs that hurt thousands, and lost pensions that dash retirement dreams. Unfortunately, these events are more common than we’d like to think, and workers do rebound, rebuild and continue to show resilience.

    Still, what if the transgression is something you’ve caused? What if the big client left because of you? Maybe you were supposed to provide a critical element on a big project and failed to show up? Maybe your mouth got into gear before your brain? No matter the mistake, you need to own up. You’ve broken a bond of trust and now it’s up to you to say you are sorry and repair it.

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    The Aftermath

    womanprotectgself Don’t for a minute think that ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away is the way to handle it. You may be worried about losing your job, damaging your reputation or having to pay for reparations, but there are some steps to take to help salvage your career.

    Acknowledge your mistake. It is the mature person who can recognize what he’s done wrong and admit it. Denying it will only make people think less of you. This is the first step toward normalization.

    Apologize in a Timely Manner. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard is this: “Sometimes we underestimate the importance of saying we're sorry." And apologies have to be well thought out, sincere—and timely, don’t wait a month to say it. Take just a short time to see the problem from the other side, think about the size and scope of what you’ve done, and consider the severity of the problem. Only then can you articulate how you feel. Apologies should be personal, one-to-one, and a genuine step toward asking for forgiveness and that means taking responsibility. No excuses, no deflection and no buts included. Say or commit to writing what you did and don’t emphasize extenuating circumstances—sometimes nothing else matters when you’ve lost someone’s trust.

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    Sympathy, Responsibility and Consequences

    peoplewquestions Any steps toward resolution should begin with you. Offer to make amends by first correcting the problem, and then seeking to make things right. Since an apology may not be enough, expect: that you might have lost some cred with your colleagues, you may get passed over for promotion or big projects, and your future work may go unrecognized for a while. No matter, don’t push it. Live through the anger and the pain and be a bigger person.

    Acknowledge support from colleagues who have gone to bat for you and then continue to develop relationships but don’t solicit support or seek to bargain. Nothing is more regretful than pressuring your true friends. It is only by being quiet and taking the heat that the process moves on.

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    Resolve to do better. Create a meeting to offer a solution or some way to get over the speed bumps better. Don’t look for someone to share the blame. Think clearly about a plan and that may mean studying workplace law, knowing your company’s policy, looking over your company contract, and approaching the plan with a clear idea of some steps to take to understand what went wrong and how to fix it. Understand too, that some things will take time to heal.

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    Keep Emotions in Check

    Don’t get frustrated and expect forgiveness or get testy as if you are waiting for a response. Sometimes a little honest repentance needs space and reflection. Demonstrate that you’ve learned your lesson in a quiet unassuming manner. The rebound may never come so realize that at some point, you may have to ask your boss if it’s time to leave.

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    Reference & Resource

    Career mistakes:

    Good overall rules for resolving workplace problems:

    Photo Credits:

    Clenched fist: PhotoSpin

    Scared women protecting herself:

    People with questions: go