How To Recover From Three Of The Biggest Career Screw-Ups

Can you come back from a screaming match with your boss? Or a happy-hour slip-up? With the right words, it may be possible.

How To Recover From Three Of The Biggest Career Screw-Ups
[Photo: Diego Cervo via Shutterstock]

You’ve gone and done it: You quit on the spot. Or you got into a big argument with your boss and everyone in the office saw. Or you had one too many at the last happy hour and embarrassed yourself.


Maybe you even got into a drunken fight with your boss and quit at the happy hour.

That last one may be hopeless, but the other three–and similar regrettable career gaffes–can sometimes be salvaged. Here’s what to do.

Quitting On The Spot

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that employers are seeing more disgruntled employees walk out without giving the customary two weeks’ notice. Of course, without a nationally representative sample, it’s hard to know whether that’s actually happening on a large scale. But when I ask psychologist and career counselor Dr. Richard Orbé-Austin which potentially career-killing mess-ups he’s seeing more of these days, quitting on the spot is the first one he mentions.

Especially among younger workers who began their careers during the recovery from the last financial crisis, Orbé-Austin points out, job hopping has become more the norm. And that may increase the type of behavior both he and the Journal say they’re seeing more of.

According to Orbé-Austin, hasty career changes often beget more hasty career changes. “Some [people] are dissatisfied and want to get to the next place,” which may quickly prove “less satisfying [than they’d imagined], and then they decide that they may want to jump again.” Having already dispensed with one convention, and with little employer loyalty, it may be easier for some workers to flout another–and walk out with no notice.

Related Video: Ready To Leave Your Job?

Whatever the reason and however common it may be, quitting immediately is usually a heat-of-the-moment choice that many come to regret. And if you do, the sooner the better, says Orbé-Austin. Come in the next day and make an appointment to meet with your boss as soon as possible. Be contrite but even-tempered–the key is to contrast yesterday’s emotional flare-up with today’s more sober-minded decision.


You can say “that you made a terrible mistake and there have been things that have been a challenge for you, and you want to take this as an opportunity to rectify the issue,” Orbé-Austin advises. Frame it as an opportunity for a discussion around underlying issues that you didn’t realize impacted you so much.”

The worst-case scenario is that your employer still wants you gone. Even then, though, you may be able to get a recommendation for your next gig. “Employers tend to want to keep a neutral stance,” Orbé-Austin points out, “so unless you do something terrible, they will generally give you a neutral recommendation and leave it at that.”

If not, he suggests seeking out another colleague who may not be your direct supervisor but is familiar with your work and can speak on your behalf. At all events, he says, “you want to be able to salvage some of your experience there.”

In the best-case scenario, you’re highly valued at your company, and you and your boss come to terms. You agree to see the incident as the culmination of valid frustrations, and you use that as the starting point to negotiate meaningful changes to your position.

A Big Argument With Your Boss

If walking back a hasty “I quit!” means focusing on the underlying cause of frustration, smoothing over an argument with your boss means focusing on your relationship. And here, too, time is of the essence, says Orbé-Austin.

“Try to address it directly as soon as possible and not let it linger or simmer. Often people don’t like to directly confront things and hope it’ll maybe just go away, or, ‘Maybe I can still work with this person despite that tension.’” That’s usually wishful thinking. Instead, ask for a meeting and “be prepared to reflect on your role in the disagreement. Even if you feel that person was 100% wrong in that interaction, you want to be able to identify what you could’ve done differently.”


As you apologize for your own conduct, underscore the value of the working partnership you already have. Make it clear this was an exception. “There may be long-running tensions around other issues, but . . . you want to start by addressing that particular situation. It’s hard to go back to, ‘You know, this is the eighth time this has happened with you.’”

So no airing old grievances. By taking responsibility for the recent blow-up and not being defensive, you can use that conflict to reset the productive relationship you’ve built–despite whatever bumps there have been in the past–and find a way to avoid tensions from building up again in the future.

Getting Plastered At A Work Event

Too much alcohol can definitely lead you to lower your guard a little too far during social outings with colleagues, but it may not be the only cause of a misstep. If you’ve acted unprofessionally, you risk becoming that person people have an incriminating story about–never a great thing for your career.

“It’s probably happening right now as we speak,” Orbé-Austin jokes, “but you’ve got to just take responsibility for your actions and apologize in due course to whomever you may have offended or embarrassed–it’s not always just yourself.”

Try not to just laugh it off, he says. “People can forgive mistakes and inappropriate slip-ups once in awhile, but it’s difficult [for them to do that] if you’ve not held yourself accountable for it . . . Saying, ‘Look, you know what, last Friday night things got out of control, and that doesn’t reflect how I usually behave’” is as simple an apology as it is an effective one.

But you may be able to do better than just save face. It’s similar to making amends after fighting with your boss, Orbé-Austin adds, which hinges on “being able to know and understand that what you want is to strengthen the relationship, and there were things that were standing in the way.” With embarrassing social incidents, it could be that you’d simply wanted to get to know your colleagues and just chose the wrong way to do it.


Now, despite the blunder, you’ve opened up an opportunity that you might not have had otherwise. You may think to yourself, “Maybe I should try to go to lunch more with more of these folks,” says Orbé-Austin, “or do different things that let people see another side of me [that isn’t] out of control.”

Without meaning to, you’ve just turned a nightmare scenario into networking.

related video: Can you rekindle your career passion?

About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.