How to Deal When You Mess Up At Work

By: Lauren Mineau

Everyone makes mistakes. Slipping up at work is never ideal but it happens. There is always a way to deal with these situations professionally. Here’s how.

Situation: Being rude to a colleague.

What to do: In most situations, acknowledging what was said and apologizing for it will appease the situation a bit. It does not matter if the colleague was being frustrating or annoying; if one’s behavior was not professional, it must be remedied. Admit the behavior was not appropriate and that a mistake was made. It will help clear the air to move forward.

Situation: Someone heard a complaint made about him or her, or they were CCed on an email that was critical of them.

What to do: Don’t let it slide. It is going to be awkward but an apology is necessary. If the comment was rooted in truth, like if a person is frequently late or unprepared, consider letting the person’s manager know. If the frustration came from a direct report, apologize profusely but consider using it as a learning experience if their actions directly caused the comment.

Situation: Blame was incorrectly placed on someone for a problem.

What to do: If applicable, let the person know how the situation happened. They may be able to understand how the blame was shifted and it could ease their feelings. Encourage better communication for all so the situation doesn’t happen again. As always, admit fault if need be.

Situation: Something said offended a coworker.

What to do: Likely, the person is embarrassed. The best plan of action would be an apology face-to-face and privately. They likely don’t want to the topic to be revisited but they are owed an apology.

Situation: A missed deadline.

What to do: If the work needs more time to be completed, notify those who could grant it. If being overworked or overtaxed caused the missed deadline, this could be a good time to revisit workloads and tasks. If the deadline was truly, simply forgotten, prioritize the project. Assure colleagues it won’t happen again and make sure it doesn’t.

In any situation, do not react right away. Take a moment to breathe and assess how to handle it. Put yourself in the shoes of the affected person or people. Do the best job possible to keep a level head and be genuine in apologizing. It feels horrible to mess up but it is even worse to not deal with it.

After the dust has settled, consider why the situation happened. Is there an intrapersonal issue to work on? Is the workplace social setting too carefree, so some individuals feel certain comments are within bounds? Are people too stressed that deadlines are missed or interactions are negative overall?

Most importantly, ensure nothing similar happens again. Building trust back up requires time and is best illustrated through actions.