Q. My colleague left a project in my care while he was out of the office. While I was working on it, I discovered an error he had made. I wasn’t sure how to correct it, so I brought the issue to our boss, who helped me. However, it also came up in the conversation how the error came to be, which does not look great for my colleague. I didn’t mean to be a tattletale, and now I feel like I owe him an apology–will that just make things more awkward?
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A: “Tattletale” and “apology” aren’t words I thought of when I considered your situation. The fact is your colleague turned his project over to you, and it had an error in it, an error you weren’t responsible for. Your goal was to continue the work on your colleague’s project and have it be accurate. Once you realized there was an error and you needed your boss’s help in resolving it, you had no choice but to talk with him. Otherwise, your boss might be left with the impression that the error was yours. You were not a tattletale.
Instead of “apology” I think of the word “explanation.” Preferably that explanation would be given before your boss talks with your colleague. It ‘s better that he hears what happened from you so he isn’t caught unaware when your boss talks with him about the mistake.
By the way, everyone should remember that it’s not a matter of “if” you’re going to make a mistake at work, it’s a matter of what you’re going to do about it “when” the mistake happens. Owning up to a mistake is the first step and that means accepting responsibility and apologizing. The second step is having a solution if possible. Don’t put the onus of fixing the mistake on someone else’s back, especially your boss’s back. And don’t wait for your boss to come see you; ask to speak with him right away. By taking the initiative, accepting responsibility, and offering a solution you have the best chance of recovering. “Mr. Smith, could I speak with you for a moment? I don’t know for sure, but you may already have seen the email I sent to Tom which included some unkind remarks about you. I am very sorry. I should never have written it, much less sent it. I realize now that if I have an issue, I need to come see you about it. Perhaps at the next staff meeting I could lead a discussion reminding everyone about what constitutes an appropriate email and what doesn’t. Again, I’m very sorry.”