An executive who I do leadership coaching with recently shared that a member of her team made a colossal, astronomical-amount-of-money, public relations nightmare mistake. She values the employee, and understands that mistakes happen, but the employee did not own up to the mistake, which only made it worse.

We have all been there. Making a mistake sucks. BIG TIME. And it can cost you – your job, relationships, reputation, credibility, monetary fines, and more. What can you do when you make a major misstep on the job?

  • Own up to it. I have seen this done well, and I have seen people try to assign blame to others when it was clearly their own wrongdoing. Being honest – and doing so quickly – is always the gracious way to own up to a mistake.
  • Be part of the solution. My first manager out of college used to tell the team “Do not come to me with a problem unless you also have a solution”, which made telling her that I had erroneously withdrawn $1,000,000, not the desired $10,000, from a client’s mutual fund account and was on my way to the mailroom to search high and low before it was mailed a bit easier to swallow. Oops. Have at least the framework of a solution so that steps can be taken quickly to work towards resolution so that you are remembered as much for being part of the positive outcome as you are for the source of the issue.
  • Apologize, and really mean it. Sounds obvious, right? Shocking, but there are many for whom saying the words “I am sorry” or “I was wrong” is a foreign concept. Humility and grace will get you far in life. And do it face-to-face, if possible. Just do not say it multiple times, or you run the risk of looking like you cannot handle the mistake.
  • Say thank you. To clean up the mess, several people may need to get involved. Thank each and every one for doing the extra work to help fix your mess.
  • What did you learn? The difference between a mistake and an epic failure is figuring out what the key takeaways are. Analyze what happened and use that knowledge to improve.
  • Document it. It will come up in your review if it was significant, so when the dust settles, write an accurate and unemotional as possible overview of the problem, what you did to correct it, could prevent in the future, and what you learned from it. That way, you leave nothing out and if and when it comes up again, you have the information at the ready. As a bonus, putting it in writing may help you to see holes in the process or workflow, which provides the opportunity to be more innovative.
  • Do not let it define you. Even if the outcome of this mistake is that you lose your job (and I’m sorry if this is the outcome), remember that mistakes are not labels. You are you and the mistake is the mistake. It is an opportunity to learn and grow. If you let it define you, you run the risk of operating out of fear, which will only result in being risk-averse and complacent.
  • Be kind to you. If someone came to you and told you that they had made a major error, you would likely show them compassion and understanding. Extend this same kindness to yourself.

Life does not come with a magic eraser, so there is no do-over, but everyone, even the most successful legends out there, has a mistake or two (or more!) in their professional history. How you handle the mix-up and how smoothly you move forward is what will leave a lasting impression.

Hire the best! With personalized service and proven results, Pillar Search & HR Consulting provides retained executive search services and human resources consulting for exceptional non-profits and socially responsible for-profit firms. A woman-owned business, Pillar is based in Boston, MA, and works on the national level. To learn more about how Pillar can assist with your hiring and human resources needs, please contact Cindy Joyce at [email protected]


  • Cindy Joyce

    Nonprofit Executive Search and Human Resources Consultant

    Pillar Search & HR Consulting

    My name is Cindy Joyce, and I am the Founder of Pillar Search and HR Consulting, a woman-owned executive search and HR consulting firm that works with nonprofit and mission-driven organizations. In addition, I teach at Harvard Extension School and eCornell, the online education platform for Cornell University. I live in Boston with my rescue lab Neddick, and am a huge fan of yoga, cooking, gardening and extra dirty martinis. I hope you enjoy my articles!