What is the best way to break bad news at work?
May 25, 2010 9:36 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to break bad news at work?

I made a mistake at work and have just now discovered what happened. Without getting too much into the specifics of it, I can safely say that I have caused a smallish loss of potential business and have probably aggravated some (more like around 50) of our customers. Overall we have several thousands of customers per year, but it's still a good number of people that I have pissed off.

I am 100% responsible, straight up. I have already claimed full responsibility to my manager, but it's likely tomorrow I will need to explain to the head of the company and some other people what has happened.

This is probably the worst mistake I have ever made, but overall (in my opinion) I think it is not too serious of an incident relative to what I could screw up. Because of my particular job role(s), I am solely responsible for many important systems that are critical to the company and have access to literally all of the sensitive information, so the scale of damage I could potentially cause is anything between a minor inconvenience for one user and complete irreversible destruction of the entire company. In quantified terms, I personally rate this about a 4 out of 10 on the You Fucked Up scale of business. However, I know that the people I will be meeting with are very sensitive to issues like the one I have caused and that those affected by me will be very upset.

So my question is, what is the best way to break the bad news to the higher ups? Historically I am very bad under pressure. I have no smooth talking skills at all, and I am pretty bad at regular talking also. I've done my homework in the sense that I have lots of graphs and charts to show exactly how bad it is that I have screwed up, but beyond that I don't know what I am going to say except sorry and please don't fire me. Is there some magic turn of phrase or some kind of strategy I can use that will soften the blow? Please hope me, Metafilter.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you have it basically: be honest, take responsibility, explain exactly what happened and why.

What I think they will want to hear, though, is this: an explanation of what steps you are taking to make sure it never, ever happens again. Give them that and I think you'll be fine.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:43 PM on May 25, 2010 [8 favorites]

Is there some magic turn of phrase or some kind of strategy I can use that will soften the blow?

Have a plan in mind to a) rectify/mitigate your mistake as much as possible (how much is possible depends on the nature of the mistake, of course); b) make sure it doesn't happen again. I.e., "here's what I'm doing to mollify our upset customers to the extent possible; here's what I'm going to do to make sure I don't make this mistake again."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:45 PM on May 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

(I know you can't guarantee you'll never make another mistake. What I mean was, there has to be some kind of procedure of double- or triple-checking or whatever you can implement, to lessen the likelihood of this particular thing happening again.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:46 PM on May 25, 2010

1) Explain your mistake and its consequences in enough detail so that they understand exactly what is going on.

2) After admitting your mistake and assuming responsibility for it, avoid subjective characterizations of just how badly you screwed up; unless you are quick on your feet, these can sound like either groveling or making excuses.

3) Finally, give them a plan for fixing it, beyond "fire anonymous and continue to panic." This is what assuming responsibility really means, and it is the most important part of delivering any bad (or good, or neutral) news to your boss.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 9:46 PM on May 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was when you've screwed up, ALWAYS bring a viable solution or two with you when you go explain the error. They may not use your solutions, but it shows that you're not just admitting error but actively trying to fix it (responsible employee with initiative!), and it psychologically puts them in a place of "crap! error! oh, wait, anonymous has a fix ... phew." (Also in a lot of cases, people will go along with your solution if it seems workable just so they don't have to think about it. This is to your advantage if your solution is easy/works best for you/involves the least unpaid overtime/whatever.)

So, "Here is what happened. It was my responsibility and my error. I propose that we send these 50 customers non-exploding printers/a letter of explanation/a discount code/to Mars. (Or, "I defer to the customer relations department on how to handle repairing these relationships but will help in any way I can.") To prevent this from happening again in the future, I suggest we put these controls in place, which will require 20 hours of coding/a second sign-off before releasing invoices/a robot with laser eyes."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:47 PM on May 25, 2010 [15 favorites]

"complete irreversible destruction of the entire company," hmm, sounds like the focus needs to be on making the company not quite so dependent on your personal perfection. Perhaps another employee should be hired. The negative is that you made a mistake. But management has made a much bigger mistake in allowing a single point of failure by having just one person solely responsible for not one, not two, but MANY mission critical systems!

But you can't go pointing fingers at management, they don't like that. Instead, focus on the proactive solution of hiring (or possibly outsourcing some of these systems) so that this kind of mistake is less likely in the future.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 9:47 PM on May 25, 2010

Really, really, REALLY have a plan for how this won't happen again. You should be able to explain this plan in VERY clear, unambiguous terms. "Server access has been denied. The server has been placed under lock and key. Here's the only key (place key on table), which I will not be in possession of going forward. When the company goes to do this again, here is the 3-step procedure to be followed (hand out copies), which you can see prevents this from happening again."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:48 PM on May 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

First: the NSW Ombudsman put re-issued their remarkable Practical Guide to Apology recently which goes into the whys and hows of regret and reparation far better than I can or ask.me can. If you read nothing else today, print yourself out a copy and read it.

Now, more practically, fuckups and Terrible Mistakes are so frequent and expected where I work that there's a set procedure for being asked about them, involving MS Word templates tailored to the various levels of accountability. Physically, notes are in fourteen-point type, double spaced, and no more than about four pages long, designed to be read in front of a hostile audience. Functionally, they do three things: inform about exactly what's happened, describe what action's been taken in response, and put the Terrible Mistake in a broader context.

So sit down with me, and we'll fill in one of my special Terrible Mistake response sheets.
Issue: [This Is A One-Line Summation Of Your Terrible Mistake]

Suggested Response: [Three to five paragraphs. 1. Describe as briefly and succinctly as you can the nature of the Terrible Mistake, and its significant consequences. This may or may not include an apology.* 2. Describe the actions you've already taken in response, any actions that could be taken from now on, and outline any decisions that might have to be made. 3. Put across what's going well in your work, what you've done well, and generally put the Terrible Mistake in the context of exactly what you're responsible for in your work and the level of risk involved in it.]

Background: [About three paragraphs, typically a narrative or description of the events leading up to Your Terrible Mistake, not meant to be read aloud, but rather in response to questions]

Additional Information: [here's where you put all your graphs, plots, and props to refer to, meant to be distributed].
See? That wasn't so painful. And if you've prepared it right, you'll give your masters the information they need, rather than the information you think is important. There's a big difference.

Best wishes making reparations, anonymous.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:04 PM on May 25, 2010 [29 favorites]

See I'm OK, the bull is dead".
posted by mhoye at 10:04 PM on May 25, 2010 [10 favorites]

It really depends on the details, so this may or may not apply. See if this is true for your particular situation.

In an ideal world, mistakes would be near-impossible. Your situation may illustrate a vulnerability in the systems which you are now prepared to correct. You could explain it as follows:

- A situation has occurred. This is the situation. I did ___. This should not have occurred. The possible ramifications of the problem are this, this, this.
- This is the plan for containing the problem. I take responsibility and will work overtime, etc, to ensure that this plan is fully carried out.
- This mistake, bad as it may seem, highlights a greater vulnerability to our organization. For example, THIS is even possible. [E.g., we lost one file this time, but this demonstrates that any staff member with my level of clearance could potentially delete an entire subdirectory by accident.]
- Therefore, I recommend that we institute the following procedures / safeguards / etc. In the short term we can do This. As our budget allows, a more formal and even more secure approach would be This.
- These will ensure that this problem will never happen again.

Your goal, within the bounds of credibility, is to spin this as a learning opportunity. Bad as it may be, the silver lining is that this mistake revealed a vulnerability before an even greater mistake happened. You are the person with the expertise to fix this vulnerability.
posted by salvia at 10:15 PM on May 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

In an alternate dimension where there were lots of jobs to be had, I would suggest printing out your resignation and bringing it to the table when you explained your mistake. Mistakes can be moments of being noticed too. A strategic manager might see through the bone-head move (mistakes happen) and look more at your handling of it. Handle it well and maybe it could even further your career.

Say, something like...I messed up. Big time. I have my resignation letter here. I am prepared to resign if you ultimately end up decided that the situation calls for it. I understand the gravity of this mistake and what it means to the company. Now that that is out of the way, I have technical details of the complexities of the mistake from the vantage point of my position in Blank dept that I should tell about so you dont waste weeks cleaning up my mess.
posted by ian1977 at 10:25 PM on May 25, 2010

Be sure to explain/show how you learned from this experience and can make sure it doesn't happen again.

"I have lots of graphs and charts to show exactly how bad it is that I have screwed up"

It sounds like you've quantified the loss pretty well. So, if it sounds like they're thinking about firing you, point out, "But you just spent $X training me!"
posted by Jacqueline at 10:28 PM on May 25, 2010

Give them the facts without interpretation or excuse, apologize and give them the solution or reasons why this won't happen again.

You said it was not too serious then used 4 out 10 on the scale. 4 out of 10 to me is more than not too serious. Let your bosses and boss's bosses determine how serious this is. By giving them the solution or steps taken to prevent this again, you are presuming you have a job going forward. Do not ask or beg.

To me, since this was fixed and addressed, is if, as you mentioned, could have done a lot worse, how can they trust you to not do worse. So, do not just outline why this won't happen again, but also include steps you will take or have taken to prevent errors of greater (or lesser) magnitude as well. Proactively prevent those errors rather than be a risk to be repeating this meeting later with a greater error. Show them you can learn from your mistakes. Belt and suspenders.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:39 PM on May 25, 2010

Briefly, lucidly, and accurately represent the mistake, take 100% ownership of it without acting as if you're fishing for forgiveness, and do so to your boss.

You've done this, actually.

Now, it's your boss's turn to figure out the next steps. Tomorrow, go right in and ask: "Has there been further fallout from my mistake yesterday? I'm fully prepared to own this, as often and as publicly as you need me to, and if you'd rather I keep my mouth shut and let you do damage control, I trust you completely. Just let me know what you need from me."

Go from there.
posted by davejay at 10:59 PM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah, and have a couple of process changes to prevent you, and others, from making the same mistake going forward. Always have that in your back pocket.
posted by davejay at 11:00 PM on May 25, 2010

I know this sounds like the most ridiculous, counterintuitive advice, but I'd actually take a look at the venerable, maligned "Delivering Bad News" PowerPoint template. Though the visuals are truly horrendous and the title to each slide is laughably bad, the actual bullet points themselves as an outline of topics to cover are not bad at all.

I am not saying you should use this template. I am certainly not advocating for the use of a bad set of bullets on a mortifyingly ugly PowerPoint template. But as a structure for a productive conversation in the wake of bad news, you could do far worse than the points outlined there.
posted by anildash at 12:15 AM on May 26, 2010

The key to not stumbling during a presentation is to practice it. Write up the key points and practice delivering them. It'll probably help a lot.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:28 AM on May 26, 2010

I would take care to NOT mention how badly you could have screwed up, or to point out that you have the power to really harm the company (either by mistake or on purpose). All the other advice here is good, but I think this bears special mention since you make so much of it in your question.

State your mistake.

Explain how you will mitigate it and prevent it from happening again.
posted by OmieWise at 5:03 AM on May 26, 2010

Seconding JohnnyGunn - I would not recommend bringing up anything around the "4 out of 10" severity. It will derail the conversation and keep you bogged down in the actual mistake. The last thing you want to do is argue with them over how serious the mistake is as this will just magnify it in their perceptions. Come with options or alternatives - everyone likes choices - and let them tell you how terrible the mistake was.
posted by machine at 6:19 AM on May 26, 2010

Accepting responsibility and saying that you're sorry goes a loooooong way. Most people start babbling about how it wasn't really their fault at all.

But keep it really simple, like this:

I have to tell you about a situation. This happened. It was my fault. This is how I will make sure it doesn't happen again. I feel absolutely terrible about this. I'm sorry.

Then let your boss react and ask questions. At that point, if they want more followup or to see your charts, you can offer to provide more analysis of your mistake.
posted by desuetude at 6:36 AM on May 26, 2010

1) This is what happened.

2) This is how it happened.

3) This is why it happened.

4) This is what we're already doing to mitigate the effects.

5) This is what we're going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again.

6) I'm sorry.
posted by schmod at 7:20 AM on May 26, 2010

Also the Lean/Toyota Five Whys: to find/define not only the immediate cause of the problem, but several levels of underlying causes to make future processes even better, stronger, more reliable, less subject to this newly-discovered single point of failure.
posted by xueexueg at 7:41 AM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you have difficulty with "smooth talking" and "regular talking", a memo or even an e-mail sent about an hour or two before you plan to meet with them may help to set the stage. That message should include the points that others have noted above.

You have already disclosed what happened to your immediate superior. If he or she knows his/her stuff, the information has probably traveled up the chain.
posted by yclipse at 8:02 AM on May 26, 2010

If you have the ability to bring complete destruction to your company, your company does not have proper controls in place. Frame the conversation around implementing controls.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:25 AM on May 26, 2010

Sounds like you're doing good, and the advice here is good: take absolute responsibility, explain how it happened and why it's your fault and how you'll make sure it doesn't happen again, and have a few possible solutions for fixing it. This is exactly what my husband had to do when he didn't follow procedures completely by the book -- to his credit, the machinery in question wasn't behaving in a clearcut way, but following procedures precisely would have prevented the screw-up -- and lost a bunch of radar data that required thousands of dollars to collect again the next day. He did all the things outlined above. That, combined with the fact that his boss is a very reasonable woman, kept him from getting chewed out. Unless your boss is nuts, they expect that people will screw up sometimes and they just want you to learn a lesson and, if you can, fix the problem.

Also, I would not stress over your lack of smooth-talking abilities; in the event you have screwed up and are completely willing to take responsibility, I think trying to engage in some smooth-talking is counterintuitive. When you mess up, people want to hear that you regret it, and that you're not trying to diminish its impact, and that you feel bad about it. If you stammer your way through it while continually affirming that it's your fault, I actually think you'll look better than if you went in saying, "Sure, I screwed up. But..." Smooth-talking would be more useful if you were trying to take the coward's way out or diminish the extent of your mistake, and I think that's the last thing your higher-ups will want; it would irritate the hell out of me, anyway.

You're an honest, non-smarmy kind of guy, and right now that will help you.
posted by Nattie at 11:12 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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