How to recover from a major mistake at work

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We all make mistakes: it is how we deal with them that is important.

With the accountancy and bookkeeping professions, errors can have a serious effect on the business. Just a single mistake in a row of figures could, if not detected and altered, potentially affect the accuracy of a company’s bottom line.

But part of being human is recognising that everyone makes errors. And a major part of being professional is how you deal with your failures – as well as your successes – at work.

Admit it, own it…

Time is of the essence if you’ve made an error. Martin Lau FMAAT, works as an accountant in the charitable sector.

He advises, “Communication and having a good working relationship with your line manager is essential to working in an accounts team. It is best to tell your line manager as soon as you realise you’ve made a mistake. That way, remedial action can be taken sooner rather than later. If you delay reporting a mistake then what might have been a small error, could develop into a serious problem when trying to rectify six months further down the line.

“Remember that the chances are that whatever you’ve done can be rectified easily as it is still fresh in your mind. Six months later it could be a challenge remembering what the error was. In our business, an error which isn’t corrected may eventually be detected by your colleagues or during the annual audit: so there’s no point in hoping that your mistake will not be discovered.”

The way you tell your boss or client about your error is important.

Admitting it is only the first stage: the second is accepting that it is your error and you want to fix it. You need to ‘own’ the mistake, rather than trying to blame something or someone else. This will make you look professional and responsible.

… apologise and move on

You need to explain how the error occurred, and what you are going to do to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.

You should offer your line manager or boss a solution to fix your mistake. It’s worth having a plan B prepared too if your line manager doesn’t like your first idea. See it as a good opportunity to show your problem-solving skills.

Of course you should apologise for your mistake – but don’t go over the top and don’t keep on about it. Your boss or client doesn’t need tears and repeated apologies. Say sorry once (and if you think others in the workplace might be affected by your error, then don’t forget to say sorry to them too).

Don’t dilute your apology with excuses: not ‘I’m sorry but’. Keep it simple and authentic. And you should also forgive yourself while you’re at it: “to err is human”, after all.

Crucially, you then need to move on: the error is in the open, it is being corrected and you have learnt from it. End of story.

What employers should do

If you’re the boss and an employee admits an error, what should you do?

It’s all too easy to get angry, but that’s not going to get you anywhere. If it’s a serious matter then you might have to pass the matter on to your HR department. But if it’s a mistake out of character, and the employee has admitted it, apologised and offered a solution, then you too need to move on.

Lau adds, “From an employer’s perspective, when a mistake is made by an employee a manager might want to consider why it happened. Was it because the employee hasn’t had sufficient training? Or are they new to the company and don’t completely understand procedures in the workplace? If either of these were factors in why the employee made the original mistake, then the manager might want to consider offering more help and training.”

You might also look at whether the employee’s workload is too heavy, and perhaps they could be offered more support.

Do try to look at the positive side. If your employee felt comfortable enough to admit their mistake to you early on, then you’ve created a good working environment.

Employees are less likely to admit their errors if they have an unapproachable boss, after all.

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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