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Updated Oct 23, 2023

Screwed Up at Work? How to Keep Your Job and Move Forward

Everyone makes mistakes, but messing up at work can be a truly stressful experience. Handling a mistake the right way can help you save your job.

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Kaylyn McKenna, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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Mistakes happen. A typo might cause data disruptions for businesses across the Northeast. Or maybe you sent the wrong email to a client. Big or small, publicly or in-house, everyone makes a mistake at some point in their career.

But a mistake doesn’t mark the end of your career. It might not even be a speed bump. If you have the correct attitude and a willingness to make things right, a work blunder can be a learning experience that gives you valuable career skills for the future. That depends on how you handle it.

Did You Know?Did you know
A challenging experience like a professional blunder can help you develop emotional intelligence skills moving forward that make you an even more valuable employee.

Steps to take after making a career mistake

“Whether you are an employee or own your own business, you’ve got to be able to handle and recover from making a blunder, because we all do it,” said Sharon Schweitzer, author and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, a company that advises corporate leaders in cross-cultural etiquette.

Schweitzer said the steps for recovering from business failures are the same even for the newest employee: minimizing emotions; maintaining transparency; accepting responsibility; apologizing, repairing or controlling the damage; and learning from the experience.

1. Minimize emotions.

Minimizing emotions is probably the biggest challenge for most people, particularly in a stressful work situation.

When people make a mistake, especially at work, they are embarrassed and maybe even ashamed, plus they’re concerned for their professional credibility, Schweitzer noted. “You may even feel a little panic and uncertainty: ‘Where do I go? What do I do?'”

The key to minimizing emotions is to maintain perspective. Seldom does a mistake end a life or even a business. It’s important to remember that. Schweitzer added that it can help to remember that some of the most successful people have experienced colossal failures.

Did You Know?Did you know
Sony founder Akio Morita failed at his first invention attempt – a rice cooker that burned the rice. If he had stopped after that failure, Sony's subsequent innovations wouldn't have led to the myriad products the company went on to develop.

2. Accept responsibility.

The next crucial step when dealing with a career mishap is transparency: Own up to your role in the error. Examine the error to see how you can fix it and prevent it from happening again.

3. Apologize for the error.

Next, of course, it’s time to craft the perfect work apology. Schweitzer suggests going to each person affected as soon as possible to explain the situation. Acknowledge your mistake, and let them know you’re fixing the problem or have already mitigated the situation. If needed, let them know what steps you are taking to prevent the issue from happening in the future.

When you apologize, be concise and factual. “Don’t overdo the apology,” Schweitzer said. “Just say, ‘I made a mistake, and this is how I’m fixing it.’ Sometimes, that sentence is all people need to hear.”

4. Repair or control damage resulting from the mistake.

After the apology, follow through on damage control. “You earn trust through your actions, not just your words,” Schweitzer said.

Proving that you are willing to own up to your actions and put in the work to fix your mistakes can help rebuild and even improve your professional reputation and credibility.

Once you rebuild a client's trust following a big mistake, secure a testimonial from them to show potential new clients that you're willing to put in the work to improve your business and serve your clients.

5. Learn from the experience.

The last step is learning from your mistakes. If you have supportive colleagues, ask them for their take on what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening in the future. If your error uncovered a potential problem that could arise again, work to change procedures or implement safeguards.

How to recover after making a mistake at work

After you’ve accomplished the primary steps for dealing with a business failure, you have one more important item: Take care of yourself. Self-care is an essential aspect of a positive work-life balance and a way to combat burnout, but it’s even more critical after a career mishap.

Here are some ways to practice self-care after a career mistake:

  • Release tension in a healthy way. “Don’t let the emotions build up like steam in a kettle,” Schweitzer said. “Release them in a healthy way.” For example, take a walk, meditate, lift weights, or play with your dog. You can practice some self-care activities while still at work. Getting through the rest of the day can be challenging after a mistake. Consider getting some fresh air and walking around the block during your break. You can also meditate or practice calm breathing exercises at your desk to combat anxiety.
  • Talk to someone about the situation. While you don’t want to dwell on the situation, it can also be helpful to talk to someone about it. You may feel embarrassed, but you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised to find that everyone you work with or know has made mistakes in their careers. If enough time has passed, most of them can probably laugh about it now too. Get back to work. Once you’ve taken time to focus on your well-being, get back to work and establish your credibility. If you’re worried that your job is in jeopardy after a mistake, the way you move forward in the aftermath can significantly impact management’s decision. Try to come to work the next day with a positive attitude, and be willing to put extra effort into your work.
  • Move forward. Be meticulous in checking your work going forward. If you put together a plan with your boss to prevent similar mistakes in the future, demonstrate that you are putting that plan into action. Managers like to see that employees are resilient and adaptable, so use this as an opportunity to prove yourself.

Karina Fabian contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Kaylyn McKenna, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
For more than 10 years, Kaylyn McKenna has studied the ins and outs of the workplace experience. With guidance designed to help both employers and employees, she advises on workplace matters affecting small businesses. This has ranged from providing recommendations on HRO and PEO services to sharing pointers on job interviews and managing increasing workloads. Her expertise has been trusted by JobGet, Business Management Daily and others. McKenna holds a bachelor's degree in business administration. While pursuing her master's in industrial and organizational psychology, she focused on relevant topics like organizational change, high-performance teamwork and customer relations. McKennna has also led webinars on workplace happiness and unconscious bias in the workplace. With her additional interest in e-commerce and finance, McKenna's work has appeared in Forbes, CBS News and
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