Office colleagues having a disargeement about work document

What to do when you make a mistake at work

Making an error is not the end of the world, as long as you act appropriately under the circumstances, expert says

Office colleagues having a disagreement about work documentThe first step to handling a mistake at work is owning up to the error and taking the lead on reporting it (Shutterstock/fizkes)

Everyone makes mistakes. It could be sending an email to the wrong recipient, disclosing confidential information or entering the wrong figures on to a spreadsheet. But some errors can have disastrous implications, especially in the digital age.

For Julie Blais Comeau, a business etiquette expert and author of Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility, there’s only one way to handle the situation when you make a mistake: “You have to own up to it and take the lead on reporting it, even if it went unnoticed,” she says.  “This lets you limit the damage on your company’s reputation. Above all, you don’t want to lose hard-earned trust or credibility.”

Here’s what you can do to mitigate the damage if you make a mistake: 


It all depends on the situation, but context accounts for a lot. “Ideally, you should apologize in person, or at the very least by phone, and never by email,” says Blais Comeau. 

Bosses, colleagues, employees and collaborators should all be notified. And don’t conceal anything, especially if they are all directly concerned, and their work could be impacted. Give a brief explanation, without hiding behind excuses.


Let people know what you are currently doing to fix the mistake and specify what can and can’t be fixed in terms of time, money, reputation, trust and emotions. “Provide at least one solution [however imperfect] to the problem and keep an open mind,” she says.

Since something obviously went wrong, you need to ask someone else (from finance, operations, human resources, and so on) to validate your proposed solution, even if you’re the president and CEO. That’s why you should do so verbally—to get feedback on the solution and its implementation.


Even though your image may be compromised, you shouldn’t let a mistake define you. “It’s not always easy,” Blais Comeau concedes. “But honesty is highly valued in the workplace, now more than ever. Tone matters, as does timing. You have to choose your words carefully:‘What I have to say is important,’ ‘I need to speak to you,’ etcetera.”

She suggests preparing notes in advance, which will not only help to keep your emotions in check, but also shows you’re taking the matter seriously and are sincere.


That would be a mistake, according to Blais Comeau. “There’s no point in getting bogged down in excuses, as this would undercut your credibility and the self-confidence you want to display despite the circumstances,” she says. 

“The same goes for expressing your gratitude: avoid showering people with thanks.” What’s done is done. It’s time to let it go—all the more so when there’s no remedy possible.


No matter what, try to draw lessons—for you and for others as well. What caused the mistake? What can you change to ensure it doesn’t happen again? In short, every mistake should be looked at positively and as an opportunity to improve.