It’s been a while since I wrote a non-technical post, so I thought I would share a situation that happened to me earlier this week and how I dealt with it. At the risk of coming across as a complete moron to whomever reads this, when many would simply never mention it again, I am a believer that sharing things helps others. The gist of this post is not about the mistake itself but how to own up to them, or more specifically, how I own up to them.
There are many articles about how social media makes it seem like everyone around you is doing great, the sky is always blue and the sun is always shining and how that tricks people into believing your own life is somehow abnormal or inferior. The same goes with reading or hearing about the work of people successful in their given field, you’d often think “Wow, they’re perfect, I’ll bet they never make mistakes!”. I am fortunate not to have much to complain about, but I do share both good and bad things for just that reason - to show I’m human, and to be human is to be imperfect. I make mistakes. We all make mistakes. I have learned from other people sharing their rough moments and perhaps someone will learn something from mine.
First, a quote. The link in the quote below sums up how I feel about mistakes, as much as I hate to make them, I do feel like I learn something and grow from it.
Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. — Oscar Wilde
(from a Psychology Today blog - 30 quotes about making mistakes)
The background to what happened is a client was having issues with EFT remittance emails from Dynamics GP. The first step in troubleshooting an issue like this is to reproduce the issue in a test environment, and then work through troubleshooting steps.
Some of you reading this can already guess what happened. I updated the email addresses for all the vendors via script and spot checked 2 or 3, and even did a small test batch to confirm the emails were going to my test email account. And they were. My biggest fear in testing email functionality is having emails go out to real customers, vendors, or employees.
Guess what? Some emails went to real vendors.
The test batch I was working with was large enough that my email inbox was flooded with emails when we ran the batch through its paces. At this point I had no idea some of the emails went to real vendors, I was happy that I was able to reproduce the issue. Yay, she says sarcastically…
Unfortunately, it gets better. We (a Microsoft support engineer was working remotely with me on this) found a potential resolution, made a change, ran through the batch again, the problem disappeared. However, I just sent yet another set of emails to some real people and still hadn’t noticed my mistake. We were happy we solved the problem and happened to check the email details table when I saw that tons of emails went to my test email address but a dozen or so had gone out to real vendors. OMG. Once I saw the emails in the sent items folder to confirm this actually happened, my heart sank, and I thought I would throw up.
How I handled it
I don’t want to call this “how to handle it” like this is some authoritative guide, but instead it’s how I handled it and why I did what I did.
First, admitting to mistakes is REALLY HARD. Admitting them to others is even harder. Having to tell a client that you screwed up is next level hard. It would be bad if I were an employee but being paid to do something in which you are theoretically an expert and then screwing up is up there. I hate making mistakes and I was pissed off at myself all day long…
Here is what I did and how I deliver unwelcome news, when I need to deliver unwelcome news:
- Admit the mistake without hesitation
- Spell out your intended plan of action
- Explain how you will prevent this from happening again
Within minutes of seeing what happened, I immediately emailed the client from bottom to top to inform them of what happened and what I planned to do about it. This meant telling the folks that would be impacted by vendors calling (A/P team), their supervisor and finally the person to whom I report to (in this case the CFO). The emails had occurred over the span of 30-40 minutes or so of testing, so I was already potentially too late, if some vendors had already reacted to the emails.
In this particular case, emails being sent out erroneously, my action plan was to contact each and every one of the affected vendors with an apology and brief explanation, copying the A/P team on the note so that further responses can be dealt with accordingly (and they know exactly who was emailed accidentally). Fortunately, the emails went out with text clearly showing it was from testing, but that is far from making the situation ok.
The last part - how you’ve learned from this - is situation dependent of course, but if your role involves doing things like this, you need to demonstrate that you are aware of what you could have done differently and/or plan to do differently next time so it doesn’t happen again. The last thing anyone wants to hear after a mistake is made is “I have no idea what happened”, and they learn nothing for the next time.
In hindsight, I made several mistakes. Not updating all the places where email addresses are kept (which will be a future blog) was just the first mistake. After the very first test batch, I should have checked the sent items to see where they went and I would have seen the issue immediately instead of 30-40 minutes later after further test batches also went out. These are not the only things I learned but they are some of the obvious ones that I will be doing from now on.
As soon as you admit a mistake, you need to know that there is an impact to that person or organization’s trust in you, which may be small or it may be large. It will differ with your relationship with the client or employer as well. Are you new or have you worked with/for them for years or somewhere in between? Have you screwed something up before there or is this the first time? How severe was the last one, if it’s not the first incident?
A significant mistake could easily result in loss of work - your dismissal. You need to know that’s a possibility depending on the gravity of the error you made and/or your previous history and in my opinion, that can’t weigh on the decision whether to admit your mistake or not. Don’t attempt to hide the mistake or delay in informing them. There is often going to be some ripple effect you may not be aware of and the last thing you want to happen is have them come to you about an issue before you have gone to them to inform them. As an example of that, one well-meaning vendor phoned the CFO because they thought their systems might have been compromised. Imagine how my conversation would have gone with the CFO had they received that phone call before my communication.
How you handle a mistake and the process of rectifying what you can of the impact of that mistake will speak volumes to your employer or client. Let it at least be speaking the best possible message it can when it occurs. No one is going to be happy you made a mistake, but if you deal with it swiftly and professionally, that will be remembered.