How to Recover From a Huge, Fireable Mistake

A reader asks:

Yesterday another coworker and I made a careless mistake that may have huge results. Among other things, our company may lose a contract because of our error. Our mistake was probably a fireable offense and certainly one that merits being written up. I think the only reason neither of those things has happened (yet…) is because we have both been stellar employees otherwise. I’ve made smaller mistakes here and there during my two years at this job (basically the ones everyone makes) but never one with such big consequences.

I had my annual review two weeks ago with my supervisor and it was nothing but praise and an unexpectedly large salary bump. Among other things, I was told that I’m very consistent and dependable. I’m devastated and disappointed in myself for proving otherwise. How can I recover from this mistake and make my supervisor think of me as a great employee again?

Green responds:

When I’m managing someone who makes a major mistake, here’s what I want to know:
* that they understand that the mistake was truly serious and what the impact could be
* how it happened, and that they understand how it happened (which are two different things)
* what steps they’re taking to ensure nothing similar happens again

If the person makes all of this clear on their own, there’s not a whole lot left for me to do. I don’t need to impress upon them the seriousness of the mistake if they’ve already made it clear that they get that. I don’t need to put systems in place to prevent against it in the future if they’ve already taken care of it.

But if they don’t do those things themselves, then we need to talk through each of them — and I’ll probably be left even more alarmed that I needed to say it, that they didn’t realize it on their own.

So the thing to do here is to talk to your manager. Make it clear that you understand what a huge mistake this was, what the potential impact could be, and how serious the situation is. Say that you’re mortified that it happened. Explain — briefly, and not defensively — where you went wrong and what steps you’re taking to avoid it ever happening again.

Then see what your manager says. There’s a decent chance that you’re going to hear that while your manager obviously isn’t thrilled, people are humans and mistakes happen. (And the chances of hearing that go way up when you take the approach above.) Or, yes, you might hear that what happened was so serious that the above isn’t enough and your manager has real doubts about your fit for the role. But as unpleasant as that is, it’s still better to talk about that explicitly than not to have it surfaced.

As for how to recover from there, simply taking responsibility in this way is a big part of it. You also, of course, should be extra careful in your work going forward, find opportunities to do unusually fantastic work, and generally counteract any worries that the mistake might have created (e.g., that you’re careless or prone to poor judgment or whatever might be concluded from the mistake).

You’ve noted that you’ve been a stellar performer otherwise, so I think you’ll be able to do this. (Panicking will make it harder though, so to the extent that you can, try to put this behind you mentally. That’s easier said than done, I realize.)