Most Americans are highly unlikely to fall as far as fast as Billy Bush, whose now-infamous participation in that 2005 Access Hollywood recording with Donald Trump got him suspended and may cost him his job as an anchor on the Today show. But plenty of people who work in ordinary jobs unconnected to either Hollywood or the presidential election still do really, really stupid things at work.
Not every mistake will have such dire consequences. But even if you’re 110% sure the axe is going to fall, career experts say there are still things you should do to make the best of a terrible situation. (Unless you got caught chortling along while someone bragged about grabbing women sexually without their permission. Then you should just realize your options for damage control are extremely limited.)
Apologize and own it. Taking responsibility for your big blunder is important — not because it will preserve your job, but because trying to cover up or dodge responsibility is probably going to turn out even worse, said Aaron Nurick, a professor of management at Bentley University. “In today’s world, information travels at lightning speed, so getting ahead of it is key.” Especially if your mistake is the kind of thing that will wind up causing public embarrassment to your organization, make sure your boss hears about it from you rather than that pesky Internet. If you try to cover it up or stall for time, you’re virtually guaranteed to make the situation worse. “If there’s a delay in an employee raising the issue and the manager hears about it elsewhere… [they’ll] see through that,” Nurick said.
Try to undo the damage. This should be your top priority, said career coach Todd Dewett. If you can’t fix it, do what you can to salvage the situation. “Your first move is to think for a few minutes about the longer-term plan to minimize the damage,” he said. Do it quickly, though. “To wait is to seal your doom… but you can push the odds in a positive direction by being proactive,” Dewett advised. It’s better to think of a couple of ways you might be able to do damage control and run them by your boss rather than asking, “What can I do?” It’s a safe bet he or she is already pretty busy putting out your fire, so don’t add to their to-do list by making them think of a way for you to help (especially because the answer in the immediate aftermath might be just, “Get out of here.”)
Don’t just quit. “If the employee is generally a good worker who rarely makes big mistakes, I would not advise them to offer resignation right away,” Nurick said. Rather than give the impression that you’re fleeing responsibility, you should stick around and own up to your actions. You might even salvage your job this way, Nurick said, although he pointed out that you also should be prepared for consequences, whether that’s the loss of a plum assignment, a reduction in your hours, or even a demotion. Accept the punishment management doles out without complaining, experts advise, because the alternative — which your boss almost certainly considered — would be worse.
Recognize that there might be lasting repercussions. “It takes years to build your professional reputation,” said Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume.com, “but only one major gaffe to call it all into question. While this may not seem fair, it is often the reality,” she said. So it’s important to be mindful of the fact that, even if your big slip-up has faded in your memory, it might not have in everyone else’s.
Avoid TMI in future interviews. If, in spite of your best efforts to remedy the situation, your gaffe costs you your job, it’s in your best interest not to mention the incident unless you have to, Augustine said. “There’s a good chance your interviewer may be unaware of the incident until you bring it up or they check your references,” she pointed out, in which case bringing it up will make the hiring manager question your judgment doubly (once for doing it, and again for volunteering information that makes you look bad). “You’ll need to address the situation if an interviewer directly asks your reason for leaving your position,” Augustine said, but absent that, the less said, the better.