CPA Stories

5 Steps in Handling Office Mistakes Gracefully

This was my boss’s message after sending back a couple corrections on some transactions where I have put in a wrong amount. Nothing major but definitely a rework for the two of us.

September has been tough for me. I was thinking about a lot of things all at the same time. As a result, my work performance has been “unintentionally affected”.

My Current Work

I work as the finance manager of a BPO company here in the Philippines. My main responsibilities include preparing tax returns and processing all sorts of payments. I do these for both our Taytay and Naga sites. On top of these are all other things known as “any other tasks as needed by the company.”

I’ve been here for 2 years as part of its pioneer team. In case you’re interested, check it here.

Eight Years as Part of the Philippine Workforce

I’ve had a couple of misses, late submissions, incorrect transactions that I’ve accumulated under my belt. Nothing major and surely nothing that can make me fired. Just a few scolding here and there. I remember, I used to be so paranoid about making mistakes at work that I would overthink, and even start preparing my resume in case they decided to let me go. Fun times.

Being part of the work force for 8 years now has greatly diminished that paranoia. Sure, I still get nervous when I made a mistake. Especially when I’m asked to explain why. But the fear has greatly decreased and I’m able to bounce back easier.

Factors Affecting How We Handle Office Mistakes

There are a lot of factors that may contribute on how employees feel about their office mistakes.

One big factor is the company’s culture on handling these mistakes. Then there’s also the type of boss that an employee has. The magnitude of the error is also relevant especially if a huge amount of money and time is needed to solve it. Whether the mistake is done intentionally or not is also an area that needs to be assessed.

Now, all the above factors pertain to an office setting. It’s a whole different scenario when lives are at stake such as in the hospital. Since accounting is usually on an office setup, my personal philosophy with accounting errors is that unlike the life of a person, accounting errors can be adjusted, reversed and corrected. Hence, accountants please calm down!

What I want to share with you is how to handle office mistakes that can be reversed or corrected. Let’s talk about mistakes that you can do something about.

Here are five steps to handle office mistakes in a cool, professional and graceful manner.

1. Present the facts in a concise manner

What’s worse than committing an office mistake? One, you don’t know how it happened and two you make this long-winded speech that do not give the answer that your boss is looking for.

I wanted to emphasize this step so let me break it in two sub points.

a. Facts only.

Facts should have an evidence – a document, video or picture for it to be accepted as true.

Once you make a mistake, check first where the error could have happened. If you can identify clearly the cause, then maybe you can solve it too by yourself. Hence you can stop reading now. Kidding, please continue.

If you can’t, make sure that when you ask for help from your team leader or manager, you will not give excuses for the error.

Don’t’ say: “I slept late last night, and my eyesight is not good, so I mixed up the numbers.”

Instead say: “I have inputted the number in the wrong order.”

And this is not for a lack of sympathy to your plight. Let’s look at the next sub point.

b. Give facts in a concise manner.

Unless your boss has nothing to do but listen to your speech the whole day or you’re the only staff, ramble away. But believe me, even if either case applies to you, no one wanted to listen to an explanation that could be done in 5 minutes but took you 30.

Try to give the facts as accurate but also as concise as possible. To report the incident quicker, you should only state facts. When you a make up excuses or lies, you will beat around the bush. Not only will your team leader see through the bull but the time you spent talking way too much could already be used in coming up with a solution.

2. Give solutions that can address the current situation

I have a manager in my previous company who used to say that we should own our process. What she meant is that we try to understand our process as much as we can so that we can do it correctly. She took it further by adding that owning your process means if anything goes amiss, we know how to solve it.

To handle office mistakes professionally, you should not stop at just reporting it back to your supervisor. Your conversation with your boss would be more valuable for both of you if you would include suggestions on how to solve the problem.

Don’t say: “So there’s the problem. Let me know what we can do.”

Instead say: “There’s the problem and I am thinking if we can solve it this way…”

It will project an image that you know your process very well. It lessens the issues that your boss will tackle that day so maybe it will take some heat off you. Also, it portrays your pro activeness and sense of urgency in solving the problem.

What if I Really Don’t Know How to Solve It?

Don’t say: “I don’t know what to do so I came to you. Can you tell me what to do?”

Instead say: “I don’t know how to solve it on my own so maybe can we look at it together and hopefully come up with a solution? Maybe a different perspective can help me.”

3. Identify ways in preventing mistake from recurring

Are you familiar with the saying “one is enough, two is forgivable, three – what’s up with you?” No? Well, I’ve just made that up. But it’s true, especially in the corporate world.

Making a mistake the first time, could be learning curve. Repeat the same mistake, could just be overwhelmed with work load. Do it the third time, you get an express pass to your supervisor’s office or out the door.

My boss used to say that she doesn’t expect her staff to be 100% correct or perfect or zero-error all the time. Although desirable, she understands that her staff are humans and not a machine. As such, every time we made a mistake, she always asked how we can prevent it from happening again.

Our top priority when we made an error is to resolve it immediately. The unwritten rule for this is that we avoid committing the same mistake again. Hence not only do we think of how we can solve our problem now but how do we prevent it from happening again, whether it’s us or another employee.

Benefit of Mistakes: Learn from It

Not all mistakes are the same. There are some that should never really happen but there are also some that should happen to refine a company’s process.

I remember our previous process on issuing checks to various departments. Since we’re familiar with each other, once I received the check, I just hand it to them. No transmittal, no acknowledgment receipt. Typical humans relying on limited brain power. Until we “lost” a check.

I keep the checks in my drawer and I am always aware whenever there are checks on that drawer. If there were none, I am at ease. I was confident the check is no longer with me as I don’t really retain checks for a long time. However, the person who needs the check says that they don’t have it.

Since checks fall under my turf, I have no choice but to make sure it was not yet cashed so I talked to our bank. They ask me to file an incident report to have it cancelled. The authorized signatory for such report? No less than our company president. Huh. Not only did I need to report it to my immediate superior, I also explained it to the President. I can laugh about it now but not at that time.

Converting Mistakes to Process Improvement

Because of that error, we started to use a check log. Considered SOP for check issuance but I guess we learned its importance the complicated way. But you see, we didn’t understand the need to implement this one if a mistake or issue was not encountered.

We need to have a healthier mindset of viewing mistakes. Yes, our main goal is avoidance, but we can choose to make the most of the situation and change it from a mistake to a process improvement.

PS: We found the check. In the hands of the person I remember giving it to. Oh well, check log is SOP!

4. If it’s your mistake, take responsibility

This one is not an easy thing to do and I believe I’m only able to apply it now because of age and the length of time I am working. Where before I try to find other people, our accounting system, even my laptop to blame, I can now honestly say if it’s really me that messed up. Not without nerves of course.

The easy way is to put the blame on anything or anyone except ourselves. But I realized that its only goal is to make us look good at the expense of others. This may be okay to “solve” the problem or let anyone else handle the problem for the time being. But it will soon come back in other forms, often worse.

It may take some time to get used to taking responsibility for mistakes. Even in our personal lives, we tend to pass the blame if we can. That’s why I included in my manifesto of turning 30 that time should come that we must learn to stop blaming other people.

My boss used to say that what they hate about staff committing an error is that people just won’t admit they did it. By not admitting, it impacts the work of those whom you blame. Furthermore, it fails to address the root cause of the error because you are trying to cover up something vital – who committed the error and who’s ultimately responsible in solving it.

My Actual Email to My Boss Applying Steps 1-4

Give the facts.

Present solutions.

Identify ways to prevent from recurring.

Take responsibility for it.

5. Let the matter go.

When the mistake is already corrected, or further corrective actions will be beyond your control anymore, please make sure to do this one. Same with other things in life, we should learn to let it go.

I know a lot of employees who continuously overthink the impact of their past mistakes. I am not saying that mistakes, regardless if it was already solved, will have no bearing on performance bonuses or promotions. It will, it usually has an impact on your employee record.

However, it is not good to dwell on matters that were already done. It will only cause unnecessary stress to one’s mind and body that may in effect, cause further errors to happen.

When Mistakes Become Overwhelming

I mentioned that September has been a tough month for me. With the wedding preparations added on top of my already full work load, I have committed a lot of blunders at work this month alone.

There’s the penalty charge we incurred for a late tax return filing. The mixed-up of employees’ account numbers on our rewards program causing over and under remittance to some of the employees. The more-than-the-usual errors on amounts of payment issuance. Hence my boss’ message of concern to me that you saw at the top.

This made me to decide to take a break off work. Not run away from working but to deal with all of it on another place. I’m lucky my boss understands.

It’s only for a few days but I feel so much better. I have completed my to-do list and was able to handle above problems in a better, calmer way. All those times I spent worrying instead of doing something. 90% of the things I’m worried about didn’t even materialize.

Mistakes are Part of Life

Making mistakes means you are trying. You are not sitting idly. You are doing something. There are errors from not doing anything but most of the mistakes at work and in life is because we are doing something.

I hope these steps will help you handle office mistakes in a better way. Each of these steps show honesty, integrity, sense of responsibility – all desirable traits we can also apply in life.

But when you feel that these mistakes are so overwhelming that you can’t even start with Step 1, then step back. It’s not a full stop. Sometimes, you just need a new angle to look at things.

Here’s to being better and wiser after each hurdle – at work and more so, with our lives.