CPA INSIDER

How to recover from a workplace blunder

The right kind of apology can help restore trust.
By Anslee Wolfe

Whether it's making a typo in a document, miscalculating a figure, or missing a deadline, mistakes at work happen even to the most meticulous among us. But your actions after discovering an error can either turn it into a learning experience or make it worse.

"Your reaction and how you handle the mistake will likely outlive the mistake," said Melissa Iglio, who runs Melissa Iglio Consulting, a global consulting and coaching business based in New York City.

While it can be scary to find yourself as the cause of a workplace blunder, knowing how to navigate it lessens the fear, said Jessica L. Smith, CPA, a supervisor on the audit team at Reynolds + Rowella in New Canaan, Conn.

"You want to learn from your mistakes, and you can lean on those you work with for support," she said. "Everybody will have that story of the first time they sent an email with the wrong attachment. It comes with every job."

Here are some tips on how to handle workplace mistakes:

Determine the severity of the error. While we all make mistakes from time to time, many of them can be immediately corrected, such as a typo in a document that has yet to be released, said Aaron Nurick, Ph.D., professor of management and psychology at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

If you've made a more serious mistake, though, his advice is not to panic. Panicking, he noted, "can lead to acting on an immediate impulse and the tendency to focus on the wrong instinct, such as self-preservation."

After you've taken a moment to think about it, decide what your next step should be. If you've made an error in a document that has already been distributed to others or made public, for example, notify your supervisor or any clients who need to be made aware.

Don't hesitate. Your initial response may be to try to fix the error on your own, before anyone notices, or delay bringing it up out of fear, said Smith, a graduate of the 2017 AICPA Leadership Academy. She advised resisting that impulse. "You want to warn those who are impacted by [the mistake] and react quickly, without procrastination or leaving it for someone else to find," she said.

Know how to apologize. If a mistake is "something you caught before it went anywhere, no apology is necessary," Smith said. But for a more serious or visible mistake, she said, "it's important to apologize to a client or to people in your organization that it impacted." 

Offer a sincere apology but don't over-apologize or become defensive, Iglio said.

Transparency and candor are essential, and the apology should be appropriate for the type and significance of the mistake, Iglio said: "The key is to acknowledge your mistake and share your willingness to be held accountable for the error."

Work to restore others' trust. The hardest mistakes to recover from are those that break someone's trust, Iglio said, and reestablishing that connection takes time. Be patient.

"Acknowledge your accountability and understanding of how the mistake might have broken trust," she said. "Share your intentions to reestablish trust and ask what you can do to restore that trust."

Simply admitting that you made a blunder also helps build trust because it shows mutual understanding and respect, said Nurick, author of the book The Good Enough Manager: The Making of a GEM.

"Coming forward and taking responsibility is a way to show empathy for others' work and concerns and shows a willingness to sacrifice one's pride for the betterment of the larger group and organization as a whole," he said. "It is a way of recognizing that we are human and in this together."

Learn from it. One way to avoid repeating a mistake is by learning from it: Why did it happen? How can you prevent it from happening again?

"After you've accepted responsibility, offer your insights on what you learned from the mistake," Iglio said.

Sharing what you know can also help others avoid errors. For example, when co-workers take on certain assignments that have been problematic in the past, Smith alerts them to issues that might arise. "I just give a heads-up to give them background knowledge so they're aware of" any potential problems, she said.

Don't dwell on past mistakes. Iglio suggested not lingering for too long on a blunder once you've addressed it.

"Often when we make mistakes, we tend to beat ourselves up and relive the mistake over and over again," she said. "After you understand the changes required to not repeat the mistake, it is important to move past it."

Don't adopt a zero-tolerance policy for errors. This type of thinking implies perfection, which isn't realistic, Nurick said. Being terrified of making errors can actually cause them, he said, and may discourage you from taking risks and being innovative.

"No one should approach tasks in a reckless or cavalier way, but creativity and improvement imply some vulnerability and learning from inevitable mistakes," Nurick said.

It's important to keep mistakes in perspective, Iglio noted. "Understand mistakes are inevitable and adopt a growth mindset. Making a mistake doesn't mean you are a failure."

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer based in Colorado. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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