Making it: Coming Back from a Work Mistake in Three Job-Saving Steps

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It’s the start of a new year, and while all the resolutions we set for ourselves are for a successful 2017, mistakes do happen – especially in the workplace.

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While attention to detail is, in my opinion, one of the most important qualities for success, mistakes are inevitable, and how we handle them can be more important than the mistake itself.

I distinctly remember the first time I made a mistake that cost my firm money. While I was an analyst at Goldman Sachs, I had received an order from a client to sell one of their positions in a Japanese stock; it was a routine order.  It was such a routine order that I didn’t think twice about it. I didn’t double check my trading log at the end of the day, and I completely forgot to submit the order before I went home for the night.  I was in complete disarray when I realized my mistake the next morning.  I thought I’d get fired!  

These are the three strategies I employed to turn my mistake into a growth opportunity, and I want to share them with you:

1. Own the Mistake ASAP: there are three worse actions than making a mistake: a) trying to hide it, b) blaming someone else, and c) making excuses. Those three actions are sure ways to exacerbate the mistake and bring more bad attention to you. Thinking that you can fix the problem alone and maybe no one has to find out is a terrible idea.  The longer you wait, the worse it will get. The first step to coming back from a mistake is to alert your boss immediately* (*maybe wait a few minutes to think about step No. 2).  There is a big difference between, “I had a really long day. I’ve been working so many hours, and the client sent their order really late.” and “I received an order last night. I don’t have any excuses for not submitting it. I am really sorry for putting us in this position.”  At that point, your boss will listen to you, instead of telling you what a bad position you’ve put them in. 

2. Provide a Solution: Owning your mistake is a great first step, but alone it falls short.  After you’ve taken responsibility for your mistake, the next step is to provide solutions for correcting it. Perhaps none of your ideas will work, but the point is to show that you’ve spent time thinking about solving the problem. The first solution I provided was to correct the mistake itself. We would give the client the price at which they would have executed the order that night and we would create an error account to book the mistake.  Our process for overnight orders was very manual, and open to human error.  Unfortunately, for me, I was the one who exposed the weakness in our system.  After solving the original problem, I suggested ways in which we could automate our system so that mistakes like the one I had made would not happen in the future. 

3. Don't Make the Same Mistake Twice: Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone can come back from a mistake and learn from it. However, if you make the same mistake twice, it will be much more difficult to be taken seriously. If you make the same mistake three or more times, I hate to break it to you, but you might need to start planning for your next job – don’t let that happen! Take time to double-check your work, or even triple-check it! Ask a trusted colleague to look over your work before submitting it.  If you have time, do your work, leave it overnight and check it again first thing in the morning. I am a firm believer that your work is a reflection of who you are. If you don’t want people to think you’re a haphazard, sloppy person, then don’t turn in haphazard, sloppy work.  You want to build a reputation for being someone who is reliable, and that begins with not making the same mistake twice. 

As for my story, as soon as my boss got to the office, I asked to speak with him, because I understood that trying to hide my mistake could have cost the firm more money, and we could potentially have lost a client.  So I owned my mistake and didn’t make excuses, even if I had valid reasons. I used the hour before my boss came to the office to come up with a viable solution to solve the mistake I had made. It turns out my boss was glad that the weakness in our system was exposed with such a small mistake (I’d thought I’d get fired for it).  In fact, my year-end review included a line about me being proactive in improving our processes! He completely forgot about the mistake I had made, but that’s only because of how I handled the situation.

PLUS: 9 Latinas Who Did it For the Culture in 2016

Remember, as badass warrior women, we own our mistakes, we provide solutions and we learn from our mistakes to make them growth opportunities.

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About this author

Julissa Arce, Contributor

Julissa Arce is a political commentator, speaker, writer and author of MY (UNDERGROUND) AMERICAN DREAM. She is a leading voice in the fight for social justice, immigrant rights and education equality.  She is a contributor for CNBC and the Huffington Post.  Her writing has been featured in CNN, The Hill, Refinery29, CNN en Español, and Fusion among other national outlets.

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