Thursday, January 19, 2012

Making a "BIG" Mistake at Work

We’ve heard it before, “We all have off days,” “We are only human” and “Everyone makes mistakes.” Just knowing these facts does not make one bit of difference when you/I am the one who makes the “Big” mistake at work. When I was younger I used to stew over my mistakes for days; I’d contemplate whether I could hide them or how to tell my supervisors what I had done with the least amount of repercussion.

A couple of years into my career, I attended a seminar where the speaker offered the following advice when you’ve made a mistake at work:

1. Inform your manager as soon as you discover the mistake. The longer you wait the worse it will be for you and the company. The sooner management is aware of the mistake the sooner they can fix it or make plans to lesson the damage. Also, the longer you wait the longer you carry around all that stress. It isn’t good for you.

2. Do whatever you can to minimize the damage.

3. Put the mistake into perspective. Consider will this matter a year from now.

For many years I followed this advice and it has always made a difference.

On the last working day of 2011, I again had the opportunity to put this advice into play. I wired too much money to a vendor. This was a big mistake. It was the last day of the year and we were managing every penny in our company’s bank account in order to have a positive cash balance on our year-end financial statements. Plus, wires are like sending cash, once the money is gone from your account it is gone. Here is what occurred after I made the mistake:

I did not discover the error. My boss did. He called me after I emailed him the wire confirmation, informing me I wired the wrong amount. I immediately went online and tried to cancel the transaction. It was too late. I tried calling my bank representative. She was on vacation. I called our bank’s wire division. I wasn’t allowed to speak to them without a password. My boss gave me his. By using his password I compromised it and it became invalid. They would no longer speak to me or my boss. I called our bank manager. He was able to verify the wire had gone through and that he was unable to call it back. He would have the bank contact the wire recipient and ask them to reject the wire. He did tell me the vendor did not have to do this. While I waited:

I contemplated whether this will matter a year from now - probably not if we were able to get our money back today. I thought about the woman in North Korea I had been reading about in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick the book I was currently reading:
Friday nights she stayed especially late for self-criticism. In these sessions members of her work unit – the department to which she was assigned - would stand up and reveal to the group anything she had done wrong. It was the Communist version of the Catholic confessional. Mrs. Song would usually say, in all sincerity, that she feared she wasn’t working hard enough. (Page 43)
I was comforted knowing that I did not live in North Korea.

Our bank finally contacted me, the vendor had rejected the wire, the money was back in our account and I was able to resend the wire with the correct dollar amount.

What did I learn from this?
When I am not sure about something I need to ask questions and not assume.
I was confused by the voided check I had been provided as backup for placing the wire. It was not the standard format I use to wire money. I wired the amount of the voided check rather than scribbled amount hand written at the bottom of the check. I should have went back to the manager and said, “I am to wire x amount to account # blah blah blah and use routing number x correct.”

I need to stay off social networking sites while at work.
In Alison Green of Ask A Manager's post 8 New Year's Resolutions for Your Career she writes:
Stop playing online. If you’re using social networking sites or instant-messaging with friends throughout the workday, it’s impacting your work. Sure, maybe you’re still getting the basics done, but you don’t want to just do the basics—you want to build a stellar reputation as someone who routinely exceeds expectations, because that’s what will give you job security and open up future opportunities.
Now I am not on Facebook or Twitter while at work, but I do spend time reading blogs and articles online. The problem is I spend time thinking about what I read and not concentrating on my work, which has led to mistakes.

Have you made a "Big" mistake at work? Do you have any additional pointers to help prevent mistakes or advice on how to bounce back quickly? If so please share.


  1. Oh Yeah. Been there. I actually did not notice one of my media buys did not send an invoice in time. It showed up two days after our fiscal year closed. EEk. Money came out of the new budget, and that did not go over well. *sigh* lesson learned - always follow through and pay attention to detail!

  2. Been there, too. But you learned something else from this one. Another time, not that there will ever be another time... you can immediately call the recipient and ask for the rejection. You probably had more time to do that than anything else, and now you know there is a mechanism.

    I hope you managed to make the person who gave you the funky back up feel responsible!

  3. Been there.

    My mistakes have been, to me, minor, but to my former and not-so-former boss, they were bigger than I ever realized. When I started making several minor mistakes in a matter of a few weeks, instead of coming to me and asking me why it was happening, they went to HR and mentioned their concerns to HR. Everyone makes mistakes, and no one does it intentionally. If you see it happening to someone who is usually more on top of things, then it is a sign that something is not right, and you owe it to that person to find out how to help.

    What is going to be interesting to me is to see how well I will be rated this year in my performance with "so many errors" under my belt in one year. Oy.

  4. I sort of disagree with the advice to apologize. I think women have to be careful especially because we have a tendency to apologize for things in ways that our male colleagues would not. There's a way to take responsibility without really accepting blame. I ranted about this a long time ago, but the incident that inspired the rant is still fresh in my memory:

  5. Nicole,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. Follow through and never assume is a good lesson. To bad you had to learn it the hard way.

  6. Webb,
    Good idea. Hopefully I will never have to use it. Not sure if the messy manager (and owner’s son) gets it or ever will.

  7. Michelle,
    I am sorry you are had such a rough year. It is funny how after making one mistake everything we touch afterward seems to go wrong. It always takes me a few days to get back into my groove after I make a mistake and my confidence is shaken.

    It is crazy that your manager went to HR without discussing the matter with you first. How long have you worked for her? It is a she isn’t it? I think she is concerned how she will be perceived by your company’s new owners and ran to HR in hopes of protecting herself. She is definitely not our or her other employee’s corner. People like that usually don’t make it too long. I hope you are doing what you need to do to take care of yourself and your family and that the new owners are more accommodating to their employee’s needs and appreciate your value.

  8. FrauTech,
    Thanks for the comment. You are right about this. Years ago when I was a young girl just starting out in the work world I cried after an engineer yelled at me for not paying his contractor’s bill in a timely fashion (the company didn’t have the money). I did a lot of research on women in the workplace after that and found that women should never apologize. My boss just looked at me when I said I was sorry. I need to own my mistakes, don’t make excuses and fix it. Then move on. I believe you have inspired me to write another post. Thanks.

  9. I think we all have been there! For me it has been a few years since I worked for someone else. The best advice I can give here, which you haven't mentioned yet:

    Concentrate on work instead of playing catch-up or plan your next get together with your co-workers during actual work hours.
    Flirting around at your workplace is never a good idea either. It usually comes back to bite you sooner or later, and most workplaces really don't care for that type of interaction either.

  10. Nice post! The lesson I have learned from one rather big mistake I've made is not to be cocky. Well, that was the cause of my mistake.

  11. Regina,
    Yes that is the best advice of all. Concentrate and be present. It makes such a difference.

  12. Girl With Ambitions,
    We have to be careful our confidence doesn't come off as aggression. Plus, when we are “cocky” our co-workers enjoy it too much when we fail.

  13. We all make mistakes. We must take ownership of our mistakes and simply say sorry before anything else when we do mess up. Saying sorry humanizes our brands and allows us to move on and grow from those experiences. Lying or not apologizing will only make things worse now more than ever.

  14. Classy,
    I asked my SIL who works in HR at a large insurance company for advice on whether women should apologize. She sees nothing wrong with women saying I'm sorry when making a mistake. What we shouldn't do is constantly be apologizing for every little thing. Or go around saying, "I'm so-o-o sorry." I did remove my apology from this post. I didn't feel comfortable giving that advice.

    I do agree lying and covering up a mistake is a BIG NO.

    If I come across specific advice on when or if women should apologize in the workplace I will write another post.

  15. Anonymous7:01 AM

    I recently resigned from a role in a very male dominated environment. I had been on the fast track to promotion however as my knowledge and confidence grew my boss/mentor seemed to use any opportunity he had to undermine or belittle me in front of my male counterparts. On numerous occasions stating "oh you're just a woman what do you know" then putting that comment down to being Friday sport.

    Bullying is a common occurrence, I was sent interstate for work and thrown into a role I had no experience in working directly with hostile customer and internal management. I tried discussing it with my boss numerously and after one incident I called my boss to report the bullying. Where he told me I had to modify my behaviour when dealing with this particular manager. My response was to accept a job within another industry.

    Upon receiving my resignation he accused me of not performing (this was in complete contradiction to my appraisal two weeks prior)

    The weeks that have followed have been difficult with him isolating me and ignoring me. Now I wish he continued doing this. With one week left in my notice period I submitted my expense claim and Amex reconciliation which turned out to have errors. He brought it to my attention and I offered to fix it immediately however he refused. Involved HR and launched a massive investigation into my claims. I spent 3/4 of last year interstate and had no support or guidance in what the travel process or reconciliation process was. So I did it as best I could.
    A week later, with one day left working there, I will be presented with further 'evidence'. I admitted to making the mistake, I offered to rectify the issue and even repay monies owed however he insists on digging further.

    I spent the afternoon in the doctors office having an anxiety attack (never had one of these before) and await another interrogation tomorrow which is meant to be my last day. I have worked there 4.5years and achieved a great deal. To have my reputation tainted by a mistake made due to lack of education, support and guidance upsets me a great deal.

    I have owned the mistakes and will continue to do so, I have offered solutions to avoid this sort of error happening again but I'm afraid he's not going to stop. He even suggested not letting me leave after the four week notice period expires.

    Can anyone offer any advise?

  16. Anonymous:
    I want to congratulate you on finding a new job. Your current company sounds at the very least mismanaged. Lucky for you, you only have to work there one more day. Your manager under no circumstances can require you to work past your notice period. So you are done, finished, out-of-there.

    To further answer your question, I have started a new post. Please see

  17. Excellent post! I'm not working yet (although I do work in the hospital as part of my course), but I found this quite useful.

    I'm also quite relieved that we don't have to experience what poor Mrs Song experienced!

    Visiting from SITS Sharefest :)

  18. Barefoot Med Student,
    I am happy you enjoyed the post. I agree, hearing stories about others such as Mrs. Song does make us put things in perspective.