Life at Work

The Worst Mistake Is Not Telling the Boss

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007

Back in 2005, I spent a couple of weeks dragging myself through the detritus of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It wasn't until I was safely home that I realized I had left the Post-issued laptop . . . somewhere.

I immediately called every number I could find at the Baltimore airport. If this was something I could quietly fix on my own without telling my bosses, believe me, I'd rather do it that way.

Thankfully, the shuttle bus owner found it on a bus. I could go back to work and not have to face a boss without a laptop in hand.

We all make mistakes in the workplace. But when and how do we disclose these problems we've created? Not telling the boss might result in digging ourselves deeper. Telling might result in discipline, firing or mistrust.

Some mistakes are life-changing serious -- as when John M. Rusnak lost millions of dollars for Baltimore's Allfirst Financial by making bad currency trades and covering them up. The bank had to be sold and more than 1,000 of his co-workers lost their jobs after he was found out in 2002. And he was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison. Others, like my laptop, er, misplacement, are not so huge in the scheme of things. But they can still feel monumental.

Last March, Lauren -- who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because she just started a new job at a different nonprofit group -- made the error of her life. Working for a local educational nonprofit group, she had to e-mail an invitation to students who had been accepted to a local college. After she sent it out, she discovered that the e-mail went to all 200,000 applicants, including those who had been rejected.

The admissions office called and yelled. Students and parents e-mailed, confused. Her boss didn't talk to her for days.

If it happened again, Lauren said, she would have tried to work with her boss. Instead, he was angry, she was scared, and they didn't communicate.

We're not foolproof, and thankfully, some supervisors recognize that. Particularly if we confess right away.

About a year ago, J.L.S. (she doesn't want her co-workers to know she did this) goofed like she had never goofed before. Her department at a government agency was allocated $25,000 to develop a new database. To get the money, she had to put the transaction into a new purchasing system. But she missed an entire step in the process, which meant the request for the money never went through. She didn't realize what she had done until the deadline had passed.

Instead of going right in to her boss to explain, she decided to wait a day. Now, she thinks she should have just confessed immediately.

She had had a sleepless night and was shaking when she went into her supervisor's office. And at first, it looked as if her boss were going to faint. The supervisor reassured J.L.S. that these mistakes -- even $25,000 ones -- happen.

Her lesson? Check, double-check, and never be afraid to ask questions. It would have been much easier to face the boss before the deadline had passed.

It's natural to hope we can fix a mistake ourselves before anyone finds out. But sometimes that could just dig us deeper.

When he worked in the insurance industry, Clay Parcells had an employee who told a client something was covered. In fact, it hadn't been approved by the company's underwriter. The client tried to collect on a claim and realized he couldn't. Instead of telling his bosses about his mistake, the employee tried to negotiate with the underwriter. The big mistake went undetected by managers for weeks. When it finally came to their attention, it was too late to fix the error. "We could have easily solved the issue by talking with the underwriter's boss early on," Parcells said. "Now we had a claim that prevented us from retroactively going back to get coverage."

The employee wasn't fired, but he was reprimanded.

"People have to worry less about losing one's job and admit a gross mistake to superiors so they can help you," said Parcells, now a regional vice president with Right Management Consultants. "Even with a tyrant of a boss, if I made an error, I wouldn't hide it from him because it would just make it worse."

When Paula Brantner was working for a West Coast nonprofit group several years ago, she was at her new company laptop -- which she had been angling to get for a long time. That's when she tipped over her diet strawberry-kiwi Snapple right onto the keyboard.

Brantner told her boss her new computer wasn't working. Her boss, known for being tough, expressed sympathy and then asked Brantner if she knew what happened.

"I had to come clean, and I said that it was probably the Snapple I spilled on it. She opened and closed her mouth, completely at a loss for words, then actually cracked a smile," said Brantner, now program director for Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

Thankfully, the company's warranty covered the replacement.

Although it may have crossed her mind to try to hide the fact that she had trashed a new computer, she knew she had to tell her boss. It did occur to her that she didn't have $2,000 to plunk down on a new replacement computer. (Believe me, that same thought crossed my mind.)

Now that she's a supervisor herself, she hopes people will follow the golden rule of mistake-land: Consider what you would want to know if you were in your supervisor's place. However, "I don't want to hear every hour, every mistake you've made. Then I'll think you're not particularly competent," she said.

Own those mistakes. Admitting your mistakes is not only the right thing to do; it also shows your boss that you accept responsibility. "It is the people who are sincere and say 'please help' who will absolutely endear themselves and get that support from their manager," said Kathy Albarado, president of Helios HR, a Reston human resources firm. "It's the people who are arrogant and defensive or try to place blame that are not going to recover from it."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company