You made a mistake–we all do. But sometimes an error can hang around and harm your reputation. You could be known as someone who is abrasive, a gossip, or even a slacker. In this case, moving past that mistake can be more difficult, especially if don’t know your bad reputation exists. When coworkers or clients have a poor impression of you, it can negatively impact your career going forward, says Lori A. Long, professor of management at Baldwin Wallace University.
“You can be passed over for promotions, or left out of important collaborations,” she says. “However, if you are aware of others’ negative views of you, you can take steps to move into a more positive light.”
Bad reputations often stem from one of three reasons: your attitude, behavior, or lack of professionalism, says Dana Goren, chief customer officer of Hibob, an HR people-management platform. “When fixing a reputation, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that works for every situation,” she says.
Be clear on the reason
Start by getting insight from others on where you fall short of expectations. “Many may hesitate to be honest with you, but if you are open and ask for feedback, emphasizing that you want to hear the bad stuff too, you can likely uncover the root of your poor reputation,” says Long.
If the reputation is caused by misinformation, it is important to take steps to correct the error. “However, the message coming directly from you won’t work, it is important for influential others to speak on your behalf,” says Long. “Engage trusted colleagues and perhaps your boss to speak favorably on your behalf to correct the misconception.”
If the problem is due to something you did, whether in error or not, it is essential that you own up to your behavior. “Others will continue to carry the negative image of you unless you admit you were wrong,” says Long.
Admit you recognize the damage you’ve done, says Jill Gugino Pante, director of the Lerner Career Services Center at the University of Delaware. “There’s nothing worse when people can’t admit their faults and try to talk their way out of issues,” she says. “It just makes the situation worse.”
Correct your behavior
Next, focus on your behavior. “Make sure you take advantage of opportunities to demonstrate your competence to others,” says Long. “For example, if you are known for being unreliable in submitting work, make a point to get work assignments turned in early.”
“You need to walk the walk, so simply telling your managers or coworkers that you will work on a problem isn’t enough; you must follow through,” says Goren. “Aim to make changes quickly and measurably so you can show your team you are serious about self-improvement and growth.”
Repairing your reputation also means making a commitment to long-term change. “You don’t want to add to your bad reputation even more by starting something that you don’t finish,” says Gugino Pante. “Changing people’s perceptions can take time, so be patient and set realistic goals you can accomplish.”
It can help to find an accountability partner; someone who will keep you on task to fulfill your promises, suggests Gugino Pante. “Someone who can tell you when you might be sliding backward,” she says. “This could be someone internal or external who has regular interaction with you and your organization.”
If your behavior has impacted someone, apologizing can go a long way, says Goren. “Consider taking the impacted colleague out for coffee, or setting aside time for an informal conversation,” she says. “Be it your boss or your peer, squashing negativity is best achieved through genuine, one-on-one communication. Clearly define the steps you plan to take to right your wrong, and make sure you follow through.”
If your actions have impacted multiple colleagues, consider speaking with HR about the best way to mend relations and eliminate the problem, says Goren. “Each group dynamic is different, so bringing in an external party like HR can be helpful,” she says. “While workshops or changes to the employee handbook might be helpful some cases, the insight from someone who is completely separate from the situation can give everyone a new perspective and may lead to solutions that those involved were not aware of.”
Apologies are never comfortable, but they’re necessary, adds Rachel Gauthier, vice president, practice leader of The Tolan Group, a staffing and recruiting agency. “Let them know that it will not happen again,” she says. “This is all easier said than done, of course, but you need to muster up the inner strength to face the fear, frustration, and probably some ugly disappointment and move on. People make mistakes. No one is perfect, but taking responsibility for your actions or inaction is critical.”
If your bad reputation goes beyond a few careless mistakes, find the developmental help you need, suggests Gugino Pante. “Perhaps you’ve earned a reputation of being aggressive with your staff in meetings and shutting down their ideas,” she says. “Find management and leadership development courses or trainings. Perhaps you’ve earned a reputation of not having the technical skills to make good decisions for your unit. Take courses or find YouTube videos to gain that knowledge so you’re not holding people or the organization back.”
Bouncing back from a questionable reputation takes patience, and you can emerge stronger and more connected to those around you, says Sarah Greenberg, lead coach at BetterUp, a career coaching platform.
“Turning around a negative reputation will always take longer than you want it to,” she says. “Walking into a room where others are looking down on you is a horrible feeling . . . Trust there is an alternative future.”
In the meantime, don’t let others’ views of you define you, Greenberg continues. “Realize people are entitled to their views,” she says. “When you recognize this, you can free yourself of the burden of having to change someone else’s beliefs and opinions. When you stop trying to change other people’s thoughts, you will, in turn, become less defensive. This is often when you actually have a shot at influencing someone’s view.”
Building a positive reputation in the workplace requires building trust in your authenticity, says Long. “Trust takes time to build, but with consistent positive behavior, you can shift your image,” she says.