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By Alison Green / Ask a Manager
July 22, 2015

Q: Should I tell my boss I made a major mistake?

I’ve recently made a pretty big mistake at my workplace. No one knows about this yet, but it’s a mistake that will definitely reveal itself with a few weeks. I’ve worked for this company for about 9 months, and have made about 2 other big mistakes like this for the same reason: not double-checking my work.

My boss has already had a conversation with me about double-checking my work and about the other mistakes. Through my resources, I have found that this is currently a $500 mistake. This is probably the most costly mistake that I have made while working for this company. However, I know for a fact that this is not the worst (or most costly) mistake made within this company. Someone else made a mistake that cost well over $10,000 and was fired shortly after.

I’ve tried thinking of ways to fix this, but I can’t because I gave the clients a more expensive product for the price of a cheaper product.

Should I tell my boss?

A: Yes, you should tell your boss. First thing on Monday.

When I’m managing someone who makes a major mistake, here’s what I want to know:

  • That they understand that the mistake was truly serious and what the impact could be
  • How it happened, and that they understand how it happened (two different things)
  • What steps they’re taking to ensure nothing similar happens again

If the person makes all of this clear on their own, there’s not a whole lot left for me to do. I don’t need to impress upon them the seriousness of the mistake (which is an unpleasant conversation) if they’ve already made it clear that they get that. I don’t need to put systems in place to prevent against it in the future if they’ve already taken care of it.

But if they don’t do those things themselves, then we need to talk through each of them — and I might be left even more alarmed that I needed to say it, that they didn’t realize it on their own.

So the thing to do here is to talk to your manager. Make it clear that you understand what a huge mistake this was, what the potential impact could be, and how serious the situation is. Say that you’re mortified that it happened. Explain — briefly, and not defensively — where you went wrong and what steps you’re taking to avoid it ever happening again.

Then see what your manager says. There’s a decent chance that you’re going to hear that while your manager obviously isn’t thrilled, people are humans and mistakes happen. (And the chances of hearing that go way up when you take the approach above.) Or, yes, you might hear that what happened was so serious that the above isn’t enough and your manager is still Highly Alarmed or — worst case scenario — even harboring real doubts about your fit for the role. But as unpleasant as that is, it’s still better to talk about that explicitly than not to have it surfaced.

As for how to recover from there, well, simply taking responsibility in this way is a big part of it. You also, of course, should be extra careful in your work going forward, find opportunities to do unusually fantastic work, and generally counteract any worries that the mistake might have created (e.g., that you’re careless or prone to poor judgment or whatever might be concluded from the mistake).

You look far, far worse if you don’t say something — and as you note, it’s going to come out anyway. It’s much worse professionally to be someone who makes mistakes and doesn’t even realize it or tries to cover them up than to be someone who simply makes mistakes. I get that it sucks to have to have the conversation, but it’s the only way to go (and you’ll likely feel better once you do).

Q: Will I get caught for lying about graduating from high school? I was recently hired two weeks ago. However I lied and said I have an high school diploma. Can I be let go? Can the employer request my transcript from the last school I attended?

A: They could fire you over that, and they could request proof of graduation or a transcript, but it’s pretty unlikely that they’re going to check on that after you were hired (especially for high school versus college). That said, I’d consider taking the GED just so that you don’t have to keep worrying about it and can get some peace of mind.

These questions are adapted from ones that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some questions have been edited for length.

Read next: The Career Mistake You Don’t Realize You’re Making

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