How to Save Your Career After Screwing Up at Work

How to Save Your Career After Screwing Up at Work
Photo: fizkes, Shutterstock

If you make a big mistake at work, losing your job — and the income and health insurance that comes with it — is the worst-case scenario, but it isn’t often the likely one. What’s more common is gaining a reputation for being bad at what you do.

Thanks to the ever-increasing integration of social media and real life, your professional reputation can outgrow your workplace pretty quickly. (Just this week, both Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole and Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz trended on Twitter as people debated whether they’re horrible at their jobs.) And if your professional reputation damaged, you may also find it hard to get employment elsewhere. People talk, after all, and you never know if a future boss is listening. Here’s how to fix your reputation after a screw-up at work.

First, own up to your mistakes

Maybe you prepared a report incorrectly, torpedoed a deal, or made a fool of yourself at a work event. Maybe your customer service skills — or lack thereof — resulted in some brutal Yelp reviews. Maybe you played in the World Series on a team that later got busted for cheating, but you got hired elsewhere anyway, then started to suck when the league cracked down on pitchers using illegal sticky substances to help them spin the ball. Whatever you did, you have to own up to it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to talk about it, because everyone else is definitely going to talk about it.

Beyond getting out ahead of the gossip, owning up to the mistake signals that you’re doing the responsible thing. If you’ve already developed a reputation for doing something bad, you need to fix that reputation ASAP. Being known as the person who screwed up is terrible, but being known as the person who screwed up and took immediate steps to make things right is less terrible.

Schedule some time with your boss to really hash out what happened. Don’t be defensive; make sure you acknowledge your screw up. And if there were contributing factors, like a colleague misled you or did their job badly in a way that resulted in you doing yours badly, mention that, but take responsibility for the errors that were yours. Apologise directly and vow to do better. (If you work at a big company or your mistake had ramifications that impact the public, you might want to consider that anything you say could be leaked to the media, so communicate accordingly.)

Know exactly why you screwed up

It’s time to do some professional soul-searching, but be warned that as with any kind of self-audit, you might not like what you discover.

“The big question is whether this is a one-time affair of being awful or a pattern of behaviour of being awful at work,” said HRUTech’s Tim Sackett, author of The Talent Fix: A Leader’s Guide to Recruiting Great Talent. “It’s funny, within HR we often see people perform awesome at one job, leave the company, and all of sudden they are a poor performer. Same person, similar job, so what gives? It turns out that a lot of your performance is not just about you, but the organizational culture, leadership support, and team you are surrounded by at work.”

Be honest with yourself about whether this was a single unavoidable mistake or one that came after a series of smaller unnoticed errors. Everyone flubs up sometimes, but if this was a crisis that seemed to be waiting to happen, consider whether your work environment contributed to the pattern of issues.

Ponder, too, whether you’re in the right job or organisation. It might seem too simple, but a big mistake could mean you’re not in the right place. The solution could be something as easy as signing up for a continuing education class or seeking out some mentorship.

Ultimately, though, you have to decide if you want to stay in your role and ride it out or look to make some kind of change.

If you decide to stay in your job, commit to killing it

Once you’ve owned up to your mistake and figured out why you made it, you just have to ride out any resulting rockiness. It’s going to suck for a while, but you can make it through, even if your coworkers hold a low opinion of you for a stretch. Remember how we said that when you address the gaffe, you should also vow to do better? The solution doesn’t lie in the promise itself; the solution lies in making good on it.

Recommit yourself to your work. Take advice or criticism from your bosses seriously and make sure your performance improves in a demonstrable way. Do your duties well, work with others, contribute meaningfully, and change people’s minds about you one by one.

Individual outreach can go a long way as well, so remember that you not only need to prove yourself to your boss, but your teammates, too. A reputation is an opinion that is largely held by a group, but those groups are made up of individuals, so you can turn the tide back in your favour by appealing to each colleague in your own way. Recruiting allies is vital.

“Unfortunately, repairing your reputation is hard to do on your own,” said Sackett. “You need a champion or two to help you. I’ve seen employees repair their reputation by taking on a junior role within a project with someone who has an exceptional reputation in the company and being very clear about what they are trying to do, to ensure this individual is on-board with helping them and being that champion they need.”

Don’t expect that you can turn in a couple of great reports or demonstrate exceptional customer service for a few days after the mistake and the problem will go away. Fixing your reputation is a long-haul endeavour that Sackett cautioned takes “time and patience.”

“In our society we want instant gratification, but reputation management takes a lot of time and effort. For one big screw-up, it can take years of rebuilding,” he said.

If you choose to leave, anticipate friction during your job hunt

If “years of rebuilding” don’t sound appealing to you or your journey of professional self-discovery led you to the conclusion that you’re better suited to toil elsewhere, your big mistake may be a turning point. But don’t expect the process to be totally smooth as you look for a new job, as your reputation may extend beyond your company.

Online reviews, press write-ups, and gossipy industry insiders could beat you to the punch when it comes to making hiring managers elsewhere aware of who you are. Plus, most job applications expect you to give your interviewers permission to contact your previous employers. When you don’t grant that permission, they’ll almost certainly ask you why in an interview. You’re still employable, you just need to strategize how you’ll handle your past mistakes during your transition.

“Have those who support you and your professional career be ready to give you your reference. Those still matter in these cases, especially direct contact, bigger titles,” said Sackett. Tip off all your allies to the facts that you’re job hunting and they may be called upon to sing your praises or talk about how you overcame the consequences of your mistake.

Next, lean into the error and embrace your reputation. Just as it’s better to own up to the screw-up internally when it happens, being upfront with potential employers is important, too. Signal that you’re mature, self-aware, and honest. Being forthright not only makes you look good in its own way, but precludes the possibility a hiring manager will find out about your issues from someone else and come to the conclusion you’re deceitful and unqualified.

Sackett advised, “Be authentic and open in the interview process. Say, ‘I fucked up and here is exactly what I learned from that, how it made me better, and what I would do differently next time.’ We love a redemption story and someone who we think has high self-insight.”

As incredible as it sounds, your professional mistakes could actually make you look good, if you handle and present them correctly. Everyone messes up, but the people who own it, learn from it, and commit to moving on from it stand the best chance at progressing past it all.

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