When Admitting Your Mistake Isn't the Last You Hear of It

Confession may be good for the soul, but it does not automatically lead to absolution.

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Suzanne Lucas

A couple of weeks ago, I made a mistake at work. I realized that I had messed up and brought it to my manager's attention. He went to his boss about it (she is a director) and they gave me the solution and basically told me to be more careful. I have been with this company for 7 years and have rarely been written up. Yesterday afternoon, my immediate supervisor informed me that the mistake had actually been brought to the attention of our customer's corporate office and it was being looked into, which I was fine with. I knew I messed up and was ready to own up to that.

Today, I went to lunch in the company's cafeteria and my boss's boss (the director) was in line a couple of people ahead of me. I could hear her conversation very clearly as she was not being quiet. She was talking to another associate, my peer, not a manager about the mistake I made and basically telling her that I messed up and she was going to write me up...etc. I was very upset but let her continue to talk to see what she would say. She continued talking trash about me as well as my supervisor. She finally turned around and realized that I was standing there and stopped talking. What should I do about this? I am very angry about this and do not feel that she should be talking to one of my peers about a mistake that I made. That should be something that is only discussed with my direct supervisor and myself behind closed doors.

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You absolutely did the correct thing in notifying your manager immediately after making a mistake. Frequently, people try to cover up their mistakes and you deserve credit for coming forward. However, confession may be good for the soul, but it does not automatically lead to absolution. You just found this out.

Now, I have no idea what your mistake was, so I don't know the scope of its impact on the business. What I do know is that the director is out of line. Talking to a peer of yours wasn't necessarily out of line. Depending on what needs to be done to fix the mistake, your coworker may need to know. Or, perhaps it is necessary to explain what went wrong so no one else makes the same mistake. I disagree with the idea that the handling of mistakes should always happen behind closed doors. If everything can be solved that way, then yes. But we often don't know the true impact of our actions for a very long time.

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Where she crossed the line was choosing to have the conversation loudly, publicly, and to use personal attacks rather than simply relate the facts. So, she did something obnoxious. She also knows that she did something wrong because she shut up as soon as she saw you were there.

What she should do is apologize to you. But you can't force this, and, frankly, if you ask her to it will probably make matters worse. She's likely to get defensive and that won't help you at all.

In reality, catching her was probably the best-case scenario. If you weren't there, you would likely have found out about the public bashing secondhand, and then you'd be angry, but the director wouldn't think she had done anything wrong. (And a note to everyone else: The cafeteria is not a private place. When you're at lunch, discuss only those things that the whole company, your competitors, contractors, and vendors can know about.)

She will either apologize to you or pretend that the discussion never took place. The best thing for you to do is take a deep breath and let it go.

I know this is the hardest advice in the world. But complaining to your manager or confronting your director--for what may be a one-time lapse in judgment--is unlikely to make things better. Chalk this up to experience and move on.

Now, should she continue making derogatory comments to your peers (or even to your manager), then that jumps the line from mistake to bullying. In that case, you should speak directly to her. Try this: "Jane, I know I made a mistake. However, that has been rectified and I would like to move forward. I find it very difficult to do so when you continue to discuss my error publicly. If there are additional changes that I need to make, please let me know."

Hopefully that will do the trick, but if not, then you need to object every time you hear her say something derogatory. In my experience, most people are good people who make mistakes from time to time. You made a mistake and would like for it not to be mentioned again. Assume that she made a mistake and wishes for the same.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human resources experience, most of which have been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.

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