How to Bounce Back from a Big Mistake at Work

It’s human to make mistakes — after all, no one is perfect. However, errors in the workplace can feel ominous. If you break your mother’s favorite vase, she’s still going to love you. If you wreck your spouse’s car, it’s unlikely that you’ll end up in divorce court.

But the workplace is a different environment, and depending on the severity of your error, it could derail your career. Fortunately, by taking the right steps, you can recover. Carolyn Thompson, executive recruiter and managing principal at Merito Group, a Washington, DC-based boutique consulting and recruiting firm, explains how you can bounce back from a major mistake.

Accept Responsibility

The first step is to acknowledge your actions without making excuses, according to Thompson. “Admit you messed up, instead of explaining why you messed up,” she says. “When you get into trying to explain what happened, you create an opportunity for conflict to start.” However, when you take responsibility and admit it was your fault, Thompson says you can avoid a contentious back-and-forth discussion.

Reprove Your Value

The next step is to show your boss that you’re still a valuable asset to the organization. Realistically speaking, Thompson says it may take three or four times to rebuild trust. “In a private conversation, you need to explain that you’re not going to make the same mistake twice,” she says. “This is where it’s important to have emotional intelligence — show that you grew from this situation and you’re better, instead of trying to pretend it never happened.” Depending on the cause of the error, she says it may be necessary to gather input (for example, ask for clarity or confirmation) to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

If You Get Fired

Getting fired is the worst-case scenario. However, Thompson says almost everyone has been fired at some point in their career. “Whether it’s a result of attitude, performance or realignment, this happens frequently.” How will you explain this to the next potential employer? “Don’t focus on ‘I was let go because of this,’ or ‘They misrepresented the job,’” Thompson warns.

She says there are two sides to every story. So maybe the job was misrepresented, but maybe you didn’t ask the right questions. “There are a lot of conflicts because of expectations,” she says. Instead of blaming someone else, she suggests turning it into a learning opportunity. “Your best response is something along the lines of ‘There was a miscommunication; let me be sure that I work on that.’”

Unemployment rates are low, but Thompson says the current job market can work to your advantage if you can take interim or temporary work. “If a company wants to bring in someone at a moment’s notice (for example, to cover for a parent on maternity leave), if you can fill that void, you’re in an ideal place,” she says. As opposed to applying for direct hire positions, which may offer a lot of competition, she says that temporary employment won’t have as many applicants.

Decrease Chances of a Repeat Mistake

Mistakes happen for a variety of reasons. “The most common mistakes are avoidable: incorrect numbers, things that weren’t proofed, some error that wasn’t caught.” Thompson says. She recommends avoiding those common mistakes by, for example, having a colleague read your report before it goes to a supervisor or the board. “Build a network of people to have your back and vice versa.”

Some mistakes may be the result of fatigue or sleep deprivation. She recommends building a schedule of well-rounded activities to make sure you have enough rest and down time after work.