When You Need To Tell Your Boss About A Mistake (And When You Can Fix It Yourself)

Everyone messes up. Here are three situations that you can handle on your own and three situations in which clueing in your boss is a must.

When You Need To Tell Your Boss About A Mistake (And When You Can Fix It Yourself)
[Photo: A. and I. Kruk via Shutterstock]

Workplace mistakes happen to the best of us. Sometimes they take the form of a typo in an important email while other times they take the form of a conversation with a client gone wrong, but the real dilemma occurs after the mistake itself has actually been made: Should you or shouldn’t you tell your boss?


The internal struggle between wanting to handle things on our own and knowing that bigger problems require a little help from the higher powers is a real one, says Adam Smiley Poswolsky, a career expert and author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, a guidebook to help millennials find meaningful work. We, as millennials, often want to be able to solve things ourselves, after all, and that’s a really awesome instinct to have—but within reason.

“The intention behind wanting to solve something yourself is really good; it means you’re good at your job and you’re a professional,” Poswolsky says. “But there are always things where the proper action is to tell somebody else, because honesty is really important, too.”

So, the “Should I tell my boss?” question is a complicated one. The good news is that it will become easier to answer as you get older and become more experienced, but if you need a little guidance now? Read on for three situations in which you can totally handle things on your own and three situations in which cluing in your boss is a must.

[Related: 7 Things Your Boss Always Notices About You]

You’ve Got This

1. You Sent The Wrong Date On An Invitation Or The Wrong Attachment In An Email To Clients

So you went back to read over an email you sent earlier today and found an error, and now you’re feeling pretty embarrassed. But have no fear: This situation has an easy fix. Follow up the first email with a second email in which you apologize to the clients and include the correct date or attachment, and voila—problem solved.

Now that the situation is handled, give yourself a pat on the back: Your boss might not know it, but by calmly and maturely handling an easily fixable situation like this one, you just saved her a serious hit to her productivity. “By handling it yourself, you keep someone who’s very busy from having something else to deal with,” Poswolsky says. “If you think of it in terms of email communication, that could be one forwarded email, an email back, and then you have to have a meeting about it. That already could be 20 minutes wasted.”


[Related: 5 Tips To Recover From Mistakes At Work]

2. You Accidentally Deleted Important Data In A Company Google Doc

Gulp—just like that, with one swift push of a button, three weeks of your team’s hard work has been lost. While your first reaction might be to go into full-on panic mode, take a deep breath and remember that Google docs provide an option to view revision history and restore old versions of documents. Read: You’ll have the doc back up and running again in no time. And if a coworker happened to notice your mistake in the split second that the info was gone? Send her a quick apology via Gchat.

Believe it or not, fixing a mistake like this on your own can result in a mini-boost of confidence. “You’re gaining experience by just taking care of business,” Poswolsky says. “You’ll think, ‘Oh, I handled that. I’ve got this.’ So, when another challenge comes up that might be even a little more complicated, you’ll know that you did it the last time so you can do it again.”

[Related: 5 Ways To Impress Your Boss In 30 Seconds Or Less]

3. You And A Coworker Had A Minor Misunderstanding

After a slight miscommunication via email, you and a coworker are feeling, well, pretty frustrated with one another. While it might be tempting to bring in someone else to mediate, take a minute to step back and evaluate the situation. If it really is just a matter of miscommunication (and this is the first time this has ever happened), you can handle it on your own. Start a calm, in-person conversation with your coworker and use those excellent people skills of yours to resolve the conflict—all without getting your boss involved.

The ability to handle tough situations like this one is something that comes with time and experience, but it can also be made easier by talking with your boss directly about how to handle these when they happen. “A periodic check-in conversation with your boss about your performance is a great time to bring this up,” Poswolsky says. “You might say, ‘Hey. This situation is something that came up. Is that something you would want to be notified about or can I just handle it on my own?’” Knowing for sure what your boss wants you to do when a problem arises? Major win.


Call In The Authorities

1. You Had A Conversation With A Client . . . And Now The Client Is Upset

So, you just got off the phone with a very unhappy client—and you know she’s unhappy because of something you said or did. It might be the last thing you want to do while you’re still processing your own embarrassment, but telling your boss is an absolute must in a situation where your company’s professional image might be on the line. She has more experience in the industry than you do, after all, and has probably dealt with an unhappy client or two in her day.

Even though bringing a situation like this to your superiors can be scary, you’re proving your maturity and knowledge of company policy by doing so. “A big benefit here is that your boss will know that you understand when something needs to be brought up the chain,” Poswolsky says.

2. Your Boss Asked You To Complete A Time-Sensitive Task—And You Forgot Entirely

Things have been crazy at work lately (as they often are when the holiday season gets closer), so when your boss approached you about completing a time-sensitive task and you didn’t make a note to yourself right away . . . you completely forgot about it.

Because your boss was the one to assign you the task, it’s inevitable that you’ll have to tell her what happened. And chances are she’ll really appreciate that, even if she’s not happy about the unfinished task. “You’re doing the right thing, you’re doing the honest thing, and you’re not trying to just hide something,” Poswolsky says. “If it’s a mistake worth telling someone, you know that line. Your boss is going to be appreciative of you being honest.” Just be sure to come to your boss with a solution—and find ways to go above and beyond in the future.

3. You’re Having A Recurring Argument With A Coworker, And It’s Getting In The Way Of Productivity

Unlike the situation mentioned above in which you had just a slight misunderstanding with a colleague, this situation involves a recurring problem that’s getting in the way of both you and your coworker’s ability to be productive members of the team. You’ve tried to start calm conversations with the coworker on your own, but no progress has been made.

Knowing when a problem has progressed from a quick fix to a bigger challenge is an important skill to have in the workplace, so if this recurring disagreement is truly causing problems and lowering office morale, your boss will be happy you brought it to her. “There’s a balance between handling it on your own when you can, and having a sense of, ‘Okay, this is important enough that I should let somebody else know,’” Poswolsky says.


This article originally appeared on Levo and is reprinted with permission.