House and Home

How to Own a Mistake at Work


There are a billion ways to screw up at work. You might misplace an important document, or disrespect a superior, or pull that scam from "Office Space" and "Superman III" where you embezzle millions of dollars from your company's bank account, a fraction of a penny at a time.

The point is, there are a lot of ways to screw up at work, but there's really only one way to make things right again: You have to own up to your mistakes.

"To maintain credibility, competence and confidence on the job, one must acknowledge their mistake immediately and take complete responsibility for correcting it," says Dianne Marsch, the director of the Etiquette School of Manhattan. "By taking ownership of your mistake, you are exhibiting maturity, completing your responsibility to your employer, and developing an understanding of how your behavior affects others."

Sure, that sounds like the right thing to do. But where do you start? And what kind of mistakes are we talking about, anyway?

"I’ve seen it all," claims Nicole Williams, a career expert at "Employees who lie on expense reports, who badmouth the company [or] boss on social media or to clients, proofreading mistakes, missing deadlines — just to name a few."

Marsch also lists gossiping, texting, computer misuse and social media abuse as some of the biggest screw-ups.

No matter what you've done, however, you need to repair the damage — and that means taking responsibility. "If you majorly screw up, you have to suffer the consequences in silence," says Williams. "Don't protest, don't try and get out of it, and don't put the blame on someone or something else. People will respect you more for owning your mistakes."

The first step in this process is to figure out who you've wronged or inconvenienced, if it's not entirely obvious.

"Depending upon how this mistake relates to the company, it should be handled accordingly," explains Williams. "Did you offend someone on a personal level? Then go to the person you wronged. Otherwise, head straight to your boss."

Next, it's time to fess up. "One would usually share with their boss or with management [the details of the mistake], and include a solution with the explanation, while ending with a genuine apology so respect isn’t lost," says Marsch.

"Think about what you can do to help the company fix this situation and what you can do to avoid it in the future," adds Williams. "This is what you need your boss to focus on other than the mistake."

Williams also says that brevity is key at this stage: "I would be brief as possible, but if your boss wants a play-by-play, rehearse what you’ll be saying beforehand," she states. "Remind your boss you are a loyal employee and this is a one-off situation.

"Explain everything, hide nothing, and provide solutions."

In order to completely drive the point home that this mistake was, in fact, a one-time thing, Williams sometimes suggests you request a meeting in a one-time place. "This one-off location unconsciously signals that this is a one-off conversation, and therefore a one-off error," she says.

And during that one-time (hopefully) meeting, there's a few things you should refrain from saying altogether.

"Don’t use excuses or try to hide your mistake," says Marsch, who instead advises you take this opportunity to learn and grow.

"Do not try and push the blame onto someone else — especially if you were caught red handed," adds Williams, who highly recommends you refrain from getting defensive, too.

Finally, you'll need to actively follow through with the solution you worked out in order to regain the trust of your peers and superiors.

"Actions speak louder than words," Williams says. "Put your plan into action shortly after speaking with your boss. The next meeting you have, walk into the boardroom and pitch an idea that will knock people's socks off."

And with enough good cred under your belt, Williams believes that your co-workers will eventually begin to think differently about you. "When they hear your name, they'll think of the great work you do, not that horrible faux pas you made last year."

Unless, of course, that faux pas involved a "Superman III" scheme to embezzle millions of dollars from the company. You're never going to live that one down.