Damage Control

Taking responsibility for mistakes and missteps at work

Whether you’re fresh out of college or a 20-year veteran in your industry, there inevitably comes a day when you make a mistake at work. The lucky among us have jobs in which our lapses don’t equal physical injury, loss of life, financial ruin or public disgrace for our employer or ourselves, but whatever the consequences, it’s important to take action when we foul up.

At times, despite the best efforts of countless etiquette experts and your parents, the slip-up is a breach of etiquette. Other times, it’s an error or oversight related to your job duties. The worst cases, of course, involve breaches of illegal activity or ethics.

Regardless, when you commit any type of blunder at work (or socially for that matter), there are steps to take toward recovering respect, trust and  — in some cases — your dignity.

Most workplace gaffes can be either avoided or quickly solved by simply embracing the rules of ethical conduct. A 2008 survey by the Aspen Institute Center for Business Education states that “55 percent of students in the 2007 survey who have just started business school strongly agree that they have opportunities to practice ethical/responsible decision making as part of their MBA.”

According to the students surveyed, those opportunities decreased as they got further into the program. Once out in the professional realm, we are often left entirely to our own devices, which doesn’t always go well, especially if ethics, integrity, honesty and the concepts of right and wrong weren’t part of our upbringing or education.    

This gap in society’s emphasis on that particular area of philosophy is on display time and time again in all too common press conferences in which a public figure stands at a podium issuing an apology (or the more ubiquitous and obvious non-apology) to a gaggle of reporters and bystanders. Unfortunately, most of these public apologies don’t take place until after an enterprising journalist or whistleblower has discovered the misstep or misdeed. Thankfully, most of us won’t have to face the media after mismanaging a deadline, losing a client or failing to make the daily bank deposit. We will, however, have to face our team or supervisor.

The best-case scenario is that you’ve discovered your mistake on your own and can be the one to bring it up. When this happens, it’s important to take responsibility for the misstep. The worst thing you can do is ignore or try to cover up the mistake. Doing so could exacerbate the problem, the consequences and the way you are perceived within your company.

First thing’s first: Apologize. Be sincere and thorough in your communication. Second, to cushion the blow, offer a solution along with your apology. This can be so effective that in some cases, you’ll negate embarrassment and fallout. But even if you are still left feeling a little red in the face and there is additional damage control in order, you’ve at least exhibited character and proved that you care about your work.

It’s not ideal, but at times someone else brings the mistake to light. When that happens, the steps are the same as in the earlier scenario. Apologize first, and then offer a solution.

Once out in the business world, it’s up to employers to create a company culture that emphasizes and fosters ethical conduct. As individuals, especially if our company doesn’t prioritize it, we are tasked with cultivating ethics and best practices, which leads to integrity, trust and respect.

As C.S. Lewis said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” When we act with ethics and integrity, those times when we do mess up are much more quickly and easily forgiven and — if we are lucky — forgotten. 

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to Melanie@MyNewOrleans.com.



Categories: Biz Etiquette, The Magazine