Ever make the kind of mistake that has visions of pink slips flashing before your eyes? If you haven’t yet, you will. Here’s what to do when it happens.

You’ve really done it this time.

You blew the deadline on THE big project. You sent an email to the wrong person (the absolute worst person, actually) thanks to address auto-fill. You messed up the numbers on the end-of-year spreadsheet that goes directly to corporate.

If you’ve ever made a mistake like this—the kind that has visions of pink slips flashing before your eyes—you know what happens the instant you realize what you’ve done: complete and utter paralyzing panic.

Your first instinct is most likely to run and hide somewhere no one will ever find you. That’s only natural. Your second instinct (after you’ve realized you can’t fit under your cubicle desk without your legs poking out) needs to be more grownup if you want to mitigate your losses.

When you make a major mistake on the job, there is only so much you can do. You can’t un-do the mistake, so your only hope is to damage control—smartly. Here’s how to do that:

1. Admit your mistake immediately

When I was just starting out at the law firm I’m with, I sent a motion to be filed without the most important exhibit attached. I didn’t realize this until the next day, when I was filing away our copy of the motion. I had no choice but to tell my boss—certainly the other side would be quick to point out the error as soon as they noticed it. So, I swallowed my pride (and my terror) and ’fessed up.

My boss was understandably angry at first, but he cooled down quickly and advised me to drive down to the clerk’s office right away and fix the issue. Then he told me something I’ve remembered ever since: “People make mistakes. What matters is that you admit it as soon as you realize it and you do whatever it takes to fix it.”

That’s good advice for business and for life.

2. Don’t make excuses (even if you have legitimate ones)

Sometimes you just get overwhelmed and flake out on a project you’d normally be all over. Sometimes something gets in your way, whether it’s illness or a jammed copier or a UPS outage that delays your Very Important Delivery.

It doesn’t matter. All that matters to your boss is what you’re going to do to remedy the situation. Offering excuses (even if you have valid ones) just makes you look like you’re trying to avoid the blame.

So even if you feel you had a really good reason for the mistake, suck it up and take full responsibility. Anything other than a genuine apology could only get you in deeper trouble.

3. Do everything in your power to make it right

Stay as late as needed until the big project is finished—and make sure to allow extra time for any other big projects in the future.

Call up the person you accidentally emailed and request that he delete the email immediately. If the information was sensitive or confidential, you may need to have him sign a waiver stating that he destroyed the document and will not disclose anything he read in it. (Your boss can advise you on the best route to take.)

Email corporate and let them know that your spreadsheet was off and you will have a revision to them as soon as possible.

Stop the damage from spreading, clean up whatever damage was done and do whatever you can to guarantee a mistake like this doesn’t happen again.

4. Be prepared for the repercussions

Even if you do everything you can to be forthright, apologetic and to fix the damage, you need to brace yourself for the fact that you will be suffering some sort of consequence for what happened.

If the mistake was a deeply serious one, you might be fired. It’s awful, and you’ll want to smack your head against the wall for making such a stupid error, but there is nothing you can do about it now. It’s over and done. Learn from your mistake and be prepared to move on.

You may need to rebuild trust with your boss. It will be frustrating that all your hard work up to this point will be erased and you’ll have to start back at zero, but it can be done. Be patient and continue to work hard, and you can win back the trust you’ve lost.

5. Go easy on yourself

We all mistakes, even whoppers of mistakes. It’s part of being human. Yes, you should examine what you did wrong so you can do better in the future, but don’t dwell or beat yourself up too hard over it.

Nations have fallen and civilizations have crumbled because of people’s mistakes. In the grand scheme of things, you will be okay.

Have you ever made a huge mistake at work? How did you handle it?

Kelly Gurnett is Assistant Editor of Brazen Life and runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.


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