Your Guide to Surviving a Career Mistake

It's possible to rehabilitate yourself from even the worst professional blunders.

Businessman sitting in corner wearing dunce hat

Everyone is prone to making the occasional gaffe, but if you're regarded as the office dunce, you need to do some serious self-reflection.

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Now you’ve done it.

You lost your temper at the wrong time with the wrong colleague. You sent an email you shouldn’t have, and now your entire address book has received information that was meant to be classified. You sent out a passive aggressive tweet complaining about your employer, but it wasn’t passive enough to miss your boss’s notice. Alexander Pope once said “to err is human; to forgive, divine,” but he might have been referring to lesser offenses – the type of boo boo you just made is so professionally damaging that it could cost you your job and cause your career to go careening into the wall.

Or so it seems. With patience and creativity it’s possible to rehabilitate yourself from even the worst career gaffes. “There are few goofs from which humans cannot recover,” says Jenny Foss, founder of the career blog JobJenny.com and author of "Ridiculously Awesome Resume Kit." "The real question is – will your employer allow you the recovery after a goof?"

Possibly, if you take these steps.

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Diagnose. Do you believe in signs? Because your slip-up and the subsequent fallout could be a fluke, but it could also be indicative of a larger problem. Sarah Vermunt, founder of Careergasm, a Toronto-based career coaching company with a mission to help people create feel-good work, suggests soul searching. “Sometimes people need to look past the surface of a failure to realize their self-sabotage is perhaps a subconscious act to save some essential part of the self,” she says. Dig deeper and you might discover you were negligent because you’re overworked or not stimulated by your job responsibilities. Knowing the root of your mistake will also help you plan your next steps.

Fess up and apologize. A true career meltdown impacts you, your colleagues and clients, so apologize to all whom are affected by what you’ve done. “If you flub it up, you will need to mobilize swiftly on a plan to openly disclose the situation,” Foss says. “You need to take full responsibility for what just happened and offer up a solution on how you’ll fix the problem or move forward from there.” If you want to keep your job and you fear you’re on the brink of losing it, Hallie Crawford, certified career coach and founder of the Atlanta-based coaching firm Create Your Career Path, suggests you ask your supervisor for a six-month grace period to prove yourself.

Keep communication flowing. Give your manager regular progress reports on how you’re repairing the professional damage you’ve done. “People are hired and fired based on their soft skills,” Crawford says. “As the cliché goes, everyone makes mistakes. The way you handle them demonstrates character.”

Just don’t play the victim when keeping your boss in the loop. Foss says it’s important you quit moping about the past. “Show through your actions that you mean it about the recovery, that you’re worth keeping around and that you aren’t going to fall off an emotional cliff as a result of the error,” she says.

[See: 10 Things to Do Immediately After Being Fired.]

Wait and watch. Instead of firing you, your boss might put you on probation, which would be good. This is a time when your colleagues will evaluate how suitable it is for you to continue in the position, but you should evaluate that for yourself as well. “If it’s obvious that your boss and peers no longer trust you, then it’s best to quit,” Crawford says. “Or if your co-workers and boss give you a chance and trust you, but your reputation has been ruined with your clients, then it’s probably worth moving on.”

Remain positive. Learn how to spin this snafu and what you’ve learned positively. “The professionals who go the distance are those who can own up to their mistakes, correct them, move on and deliver great value to the companies they serve,” Foss says.

Note that the bigger of a career setback you’ve had, the easier it will be for future professional contacts – like, hiring managers – to uncover it. Take initiative and be forthcoming about past mistakes, but keep it short. “Practice your party line so that you don’t ramble, because rambling tends to get us in trouble,” Crawford says. “Follow a script of ‘This is the error I made, this is how I handled the mistake and the aftermath, this is what I learned and this is what I do differently today.’”