Once upon a time, I worked at a high-end coffee shop. I loved it, but I was very poor and spent a lot of time pawning everything I owned to make rent. Other than that, it was a great job. I was a bit of a coffee n00b (I actually never drank coffee until a week or two before I got the job, a fact which I was probably less than forthcoming with) and I wasn’t allowed to work the espresso machine, so I ended up taking on the bulk of the food prep since I was decent at that.

My specialty was banana bread. Our banana bread at the café was simple but delicious and I made two loaves a day. One day, though, I went to turn the finished loaves out of the silicone pan, and they wouldn’t come out. I shook and shook and finally the top half of the loaf came away from the bottom and plopped out and fell apart on the rack. I was left with two big loaf pans full of totally mangled banana bread scraps. I stood staring in disbelief at my massacred bread. Then our roaster, who was also a former culinary instructor, came up behind me.

“What went wrong?” he asked, staring at my disaster.

“It stuck to the pans. They’re supposed to be non-stick. It’s never happened before.”

“What could you do differently?”

“I should have buttered the pans so they’d lift out more easily.”

And that was that. I was not in trouble, really, for wrecking the day’s banana bread, although I’d heard stories about how mad he got when people screwed it up. He just needed to know that I understood the mistake and would fix it next time. And I did; I never had another banana bread mishap again. My punishment, I was told, was to “eat my mistake”, which was delicious.

This was perhaps my first taste of making a grown-up mistake where you just take the blame and deal with it, rather than get scolded and reprimanded like a schoolchild. But, oh god, it was not my last.

Years later I was working in graphics for a company that made custom one-off prints for customers on all kinds of products. One of my responsibilities was to take template designs and implement them in the production flow so that the correct template would get applied to each customer’s order. One December, I made a lot of adjustments to a certain high-selling calendar template (as you can imagine, we made a lot of calendars in December). There was an English version and a French version as we served all of Canada.

One day I was looking for a particular order on the production floor and I noticed something strange: all the calendars seemed to be French, when in reality only maybe 5% of them should have been. I started looking through them, and discovered I had put the French cover template file onto the English template. I was immediately sick with dread. I was surrounded by literally thousands of calendars in varying stages of production, and they were almost all wrong. My first instinct was to run for the hills and maybe send a “sorry” card from the Bahamas. This was so, so much worse than 2 loaves of crumbled banana bread.

I pulled myself together and started pulling all the incorrect calendars from everywhere I saw them. I quickly realized I would have to enlist the help of the production manager to get them all held, and told him miserably what I had done. He got to work pulling them as I rushed to the shipping department to pull completed orders before they went out. Then I emailed the customer service team to tell them some may have gone out wrong and to be prepared for some calls. They were, as to be expected, less than impressed.

And then I went to talk to my boss.

I can’t promise this would happen in every workplace, but I can tell you that when I went up to that office, tail between my legs, to confess what I had done, I did not get in trouble. I had handled it, as much as it could be handled, and I had acted quickly and taken responsibility. I guarantee if the error had come out later (and it would have; it was too big to hide) and from someone other than me, I would have had hell to pay. As it was, everyone was a little miffed at me, but the general consensus seemed to be that there was no point hounding me about something I was so clearly very sorry for.

So here’s my advice for dealing with mistakes made at work:

  1. Don’t try to pass the buck; take responsibility immediately for whatever part of it you played (and avoid pointing fingers about the parts of it that maybe weren’t your fault, unless someone truly needs to have their behavior corrected)
  2. Figure out what went wrong, whether it was a matter of dropping a file in the wrong place or a non-stick pan losing its non-stickiness over time
  3. Determine how you will avoid the mistake in the future, and share that plan with your boss/coworkers as necessary (eg. in the banana bread example, I had to let my coworkers know that the pans couldn’t be trusted and we should all start buttering them)
  4. Do everything you can to fix the situation you’ve created, because that’s just common decency
  5. Be the one to tell on yourself; don’t let some other tattle tale spin it to the higher-ups or chances are you’ll come off looking a lot worse (and your boss might wonder what other screw-ups you’re hiding).

In closing, we need to talk about a mistake Jill made at work, because it’s my favourite story ever. Slightly paraphrased from an IM conversation:

“I went downstairs and started doing this thing where I helpfully refill the Nescafe pods in the holder, because they keep them in a little garbage bag next to the machine, and it appeals to my nature to sort them into their little colour areas. And lots of times the bag is kind of wet and sticky inside and I’m like UGH WHO SPILLED IN HERE?

So today I noticed, hey, all the ones I’m sorting and putting away have little holes in the top! Unlike the ones that…are…already…there…

So long story short, that little bag was the “used coffee pod” bag and I’ve been unwittingly putting used coffee pods in with the good ones for MONTHS.

I just imagine like, people accidentally putting used coffee pods in the machine, furious angry chain emails going around, tensions growing downstairs…”

I’ve got no advice for you on that one, Jill. But thanks for sharing, because it made my day.

Tell me about your big mistakes below! Seriously, I want to mock your pain too. It soothes me.