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So You (Really) Screwed Up at Work. Now What?

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You're human. And part of the deal with being human is that you screw up – inevitably, and often in a big way. No area of your life is completely safe from this (particularly lovely) human attribute, meaning that at some point in your career, you might just screw things up at work. And you might even screw them up in a big way.

If you find yourself in the position of cleaning up your own mess at work, try not to panic. While you can't change the past, you can control how you react to it, and often, employers care more about how you respond to your mistakes than about the mistakes themselves. So take a deep breath, and consider some of the following suggestions for reacting to your workplace mistake.

Say 'Sorry,' and Mean It

According to Forbes, pretty much everyone in the professional world agrees that your immediate reaction to screwing up at work should be a sincere apology. Take full responsibility for your mistake, and apologize to those who were affected by it. You might include in your apology an explanation for why the mistake happened, but not as an excuse. Use your explanation to show that you understand where exactly you went wrong, and what you've learned from it. Demonstrate that you will not repeat this mistake in the future.

President of career site AbsolutelyAbby.com Abby Kohut told Forbes that in these situations, emotion is often appropriate, in order to show that your apology is sincere. Again, you messed up because you're human, and the people who were hurt by your mistake are human, as well. Appeal to their empathetic side while also taking ownership of the problem.

Correct What You Can

Once you've apologized, there's no further use in beating yourself up and sulking in guilt. Instead, show that you're still a valuable employee by taking whatever action you can. Ask higher-ups how you can help curb the effects of your mistake, and ensure them that you will go the extra mile to make whatever corrections you can.

Andy Molinsky, management and psychology professor at Brandeis University, recommended in an Inc. article that employees recovering from a screw-up at work should devise an action plan as soon as possible. This plan should demonstrate how you intend to right your wrong, and how you'll work to ensure you never mess up in the same way again. Reacting proactively to your mistakes adds more credibility to your apology and helps to create a second chance for yourself.

Move Forward

Part of moving on from your mistakes is proving to your boss that you're still worth it, but let's be honest – the real obstacle is proving it to yourself. The best way to start proving your value and rebuilding trust in the workplace is to hit the ground running. Grazia suggests that you show your resilience by putting full effort into the task you got wrong before. Don't be afraid to ask for help or advice if your confidence is wavering. You can't succeed without support.

Consider how this mistake might even make you a more valuable employee going forward. In bouncing back from a big screw-up, you learn the ins and outs and ups and downs of your position, and often come out of it more knowledgeable and confident than you were pre-mistake. The Muse even points out that a well-handled mistake can do more to impress your colleagues than ruin their perception of you. Use your screw-up as a chance to demonstrate humility, poise and dedication to your career.

Make the Best of the Worst Case Scenario

Unfortunately, not all employers can look past a big mistake. Depending on your situation, you may lose your job. In that case, thoroughly analyze your screw-up before moving forward in the job hunt, and consider how you'll respond when interviewers ask you why you left your previous position. Kohut told Forbes that the right thing to do in such situations is to take responsibility for your past, but also to make it work for you. Create a spin story, if possible, in which you angle your wrongdoing as something positive, such as a lesson learned. Turn your story into another reason why you're worth hiring.

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About the Author

Brenna Swanston is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. She previously reported for the Sun newspaper in Santa Maria, California, and she holds a bachelor's in journalism from California Polytechnic State University.