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How to Handle On-the-Job Failure

Lindsay Olson

Let's face it: we all make mistakes, and in the office is no exception. While you'd love to put your tail between your legs until the whole thing blows over, that's usually not an option. Instead, you've got to own up, accept the consequences, and move on so that this failure doesn't affect the rest of your career.

It's OK to make mistakes. No one can fault you for making one mistake. But when you're a constant source of goof ups, well, that's grounds for firing. Paul Chittenden, founder of, says: "I once had a boss tell me that, 'It's OK to make a mistake, as long as you don't make the same mistake twice.' I've lived by that mantra ever since. If I make a mistake, I fully admit it [I've made many in my career]."

Chittenden says the good thing about making major mistakes is that they teach you incredible lessons. And chances are that once you've learned those lessons, you won't make the same error again. After you've recovered, consider what you've learned and think about how you can avoid making the mistake again.

Breaking bad (news yourself). When you make a major mistake, the last thing you want to happen is for someone else to tell on you. It's daunting, but being the one to break the news yourself can go a long way toward amending the situation. Bruce Hurwitz, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, Ltd. He's also a career counselor who frequently teaches employees how to handle on-the-job failures. "Always be the source of bad news concerning yourself," he says. "Go to the boss. Tell her what happened. Apologize and, most importantly, assure her it will never happen again and tell her what you are going to do to remedy the situation."

Hurwitz says many people think they will be fired for their error, but if they are fired, it tends to be for trying to cover it up. Honesty, it seems, is the best policy in this situation.

Don't make excuses. It's easy to try to put the blame elsewhere, but when you fail at work, it's important to own up to your role in the mistake. "The most important thing to do is acknowledge and accept fault for the problem, and not make excuses or blame others," says James T. Dabbagian, M.A, social media and content consultant. "Even if it was one of the people working under you, it was still under your control. [Accepting fault] demonstrates to your boss and workplace you understand your mistake and are willing to take the blame for it."

Work to fix it. Once you realize you're not going to be fired for the failure, it's time to determine how you can amend the situation. It's in your best interest to do whatever it takes to get back in your boss' good graces. Dabbagian says: "Talk to your boss/office to determine the best course of action to rectifying the problem, then fix it. If it means pulling an all-nighter or something otherwise inconvenient, do it anyway. Fixing the problem you made will work for you if your employer is considering relieving you of your duties. With luck, you might actually make things even better around the workplace."

Try to avoid getting into sticky situations in the first place by deliberately doing your work and double checking it. Stay organized by keeping up with your tasks and deadlines on a calendar. And if you do goof up, don't be afraid. Just take measures to fix it.

Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.

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