When I worked for a small publishing company a few years ago, I sent off dozens of sales packets to potential book buyers. A week later, those packets started arriving back at the office from angry prospects who didn’t appreciate getting sales materials with postage due. So what did I do? Did I own up? Come up with a brilliant solution? No. I complained that the post office must have made a mistake, because I knew those packages should take only one stamp. My boss didn’t trust me for a long time after that.
You may have been at the top of your class in marketing or business management–but one thing probably didn’t learn in school is how to deal when you commit a major faux pas like the one I committed. Here, tips on what to do if you mess up royally.
When Cathy Dawson worked in public relations for the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry in San Francisco, she was responsible for a quarterly publication called the Dean’s Report, which opened with an update letter from the dean. “I once sent off the Dean’s Report to printing/production without his signature on the opening letter,” says Dawson. “I woke up, literally, in the middle of the night, realizing my error. I had to go in the next morning and tell the PR Director what had happened.”
Think of it as an opportunity to become a better employee, and someone who won’t make the same mistake twice.
The save: Dawson ended up having a rubber stamp made of the dean’s John Hancock and stamping each newsletter with the sig. The lesson? “Be as up front about it as possible,” Dawson says. “A bit of embarrassment and humility will go far to remedy a situation that has the potential to become a much bigger issue later on.”
Don’t Make Excuses
Don’t give in to that urge to complain that you were rushed or rat out your office mate for forgetting to give you a vital bit of info. “Much like trying to place the blame on someone else, people in demanding offices will rationalize why the error occurred,” says Sharon Mann, an organizational expert at Esselte, a leader in office solutions. “At this point, forget about who is accountable and put your energy into fixing the problem.”
When Diana Lawton worked for an ad agency, she was in charge of sending out a crucial package by an overnight delivery service. But when the chips were down, she just plain forgot. “I was driving home from a party hours later when I remembered,” she says. “And it was way too late to make the drop.”
Instead of fretting until morning, Lawton acted fast. She pulled over, called her boss at home, and explained the situation. Her boss instructed her to call a courier service and have the package flown to its destination in the morning. The slip-up cost the company $400, but a potential disaster was averted because of Lawton’s quick action.
Be proactive and search for a solution to the problem. Dawson could have suggested scrapping the offending newsletters and starting over, or sending them out without the requisite signature, but instead she brainstormed with her coworkers to come up with the stamp idea. If you can be a problem solver instead of someone who throws up her hands in despair, “You will be viewed as someone who can meet challenges head-on,” says Mann. “This can work in your favor in the eyes of your boss, demonstrating that you can deal with adversity and solve the problem.”
Mistakes often occur because of poor organizational skills. If Lawton had kept an organized “to do” list, she might not have made the near-fatal gaffe. “Organizational skills are the key to any business, so make sure all of your papers are organized and you can quickly access important documents,” says Mann. “You can then stay on top of your duties and will be less apt to make a mistake on the job.”
Live and Learn
There is a silver lining here: you can benefit from a faux pas. Mann recommends making a list of what you learned from your blunder, and then applying this newfound knowledge to your job. For example, I learned to weigh packages before applying postage. Lawton learned to keep a to-do list. And Dawson learned to be more careful when producing the newsletter.
Says Mann: “Think of it as an opportunity to become a better employee, and someone who won’t make the same mistake twice.”