I've screwed up. Help me keep my job?
April 24, 2015 8:23 PM   Subscribe

Ever really, really mess up without meaning to? I'm there now.

I am a teaching faculty member at a small commuter college. A few months ago, I got a position on a university committee; it's an elected position, but I nominated myself and was the only nominee. Anyway, I somehow missed three separate e-mails, each a week apart, from the committee head, asking for some reports. I found the e-mails this evening, because I thought "gee, haven't heard from Committee X in a while. Wonder what they're up to?" while driving home.

It turns out that I'd missed three e-mails from the committee head, each sent a week apart. I can't explain how that happened. I checked my e-mail every day but somehow managed to miss three different e-mails. The last one (send five days ago) was marked urgent, and I *still* didn't see it.

I'm writing the reports tonight, although I'm almost entirely certain that they're past due. What can I possibly do to help my situation? I know I've screwed up big time. Please help

In my favor - I'm a good teacher per student evals, although my course is one of the toughest in our degree program.
posted by terrierhead to Work & Money (17 answers total)
Lie and tell the person they went to your spam filter.
posted by k8t at 8:28 PM on April 24, 2015 [34 favorites]

This really, really depends on the school culture, and we're not going to be able to give you meaningful advice without knowing about your school culture.

At my university, even my non-tenure-track self isn't going to get much flack for this than just "look, check your email more often, are you taking on too much, and oh yea, get in the damned reports" - but I've been there 7 years (how the heck did that happen?), have incredible amounts of social capital built up, it's been a very odd year in my department, etc. In no way would this be a firing offense, even if the Chancellor wanted the reports. It's finals (if you're on semesters in the U.S.), it's academia, and crap falls through the cracks all the time. I might get glared heavily at during the next committee meeting for something like this, and someone might be privately cranky at me. I don't write grants, I don't supervise people, nothing is likely hanging on my reports that is super time sensitive.

So, in my case, I'd get the reports in as fast as possible, apologize profusely, ask if there's anything else I need to get care of right now, and move on.

But, that's my school and situation, and each school is different.

So, step one: try not to catastrophize.
Step two: get in the reports as soon as you can, while still making sure they're good.
Step three: apologize (and don't lie, that will get you in trouble).
Step four: is there anyone (department head, someone else on the committee, etc) that you can approach and say look, X happened, what else do I need to do to smooth the feathers/who else do I need to apologize to, etc.?

Breathe. Hang in there.
posted by joycehealy at 8:43 PM on April 24, 2015 [7 favorites]

Is it possible that your university server was having issues? That's happened at a couple of my workplaces. Something was up with the DNS or something & emails were just sitting in some invisible space waiting to be sent until someone noticed something was amiss. I agree you should get your reports done ASAP, let the department head know that you check your email religiously but somehow didn't see these until tonight. Ask if anyone else has had any email issues, not to avoid taking responsibility but to make sure there isn't a technical issues. This very well may not be a screw up on your part.
posted by katemcd at 8:54 PM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]

If it were really important he or she would have called. I think you'll be fine. Frankly, repeat emails without a call in the absence of any reply by you strikes me as more passive aggressive than anything else.
posted by traveltheworld at 8:58 PM on April 24, 2015 [35 favorites]

I'd definitely call the person up (or talk in person) ASAP, say the emails must have been marked as spam or something because you didn't see them until now, tell them you're on it, and discuss any further logistics. This isn't so bad if performance is otherwise good--emails go missing or not responded to on occasion. If it was dire, dire, dire they would have called. But now its on you to make it clear some mix-up occurred, you're not flaking, and all will be made right. Don't apologize or grovel excessively, just focus on how to get the situation resolved.
posted by whitewall at 9:37 PM on April 24, 2015 [16 favorites]

Unless this school is basically the strangest, most dysfunctional place ever, I would be genuinely shocked if you got fired over this. I mean, when I read the question, I was assuming you'd done something really awful, like accidentally disseminating confidential student information or something like that. This sounds at most like something that would get you a stern talking to. And yeah, if it were so terribly urgent, the person would have called.

I would just call, apologize, and say pretty much what you said here -- you were checking your email but something went wrong and you didn't see the emails and now you're getting the reports done ASAP.
posted by holborne at 9:45 PM on April 24, 2015 [12 favorites]

Emails DO get delayed and lost more than many people realize. As traveltheworld says, important emails that go unanswered require a phone follow-up.

Twice in the last few weeks I've had missing-email problems that have affected critical deals, and one of those was internal email at a big internet-software company. It's quite possibly not your fault so don't feel you have to accept blame. Even if the emails are obvious now and have the right date and times, they might not have been there before.
posted by anadem at 10:18 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with other people that it's sort of on them to follow-up with you in some other way that is not email if email isn't working. I'd do what most other people are saying...

1. Contact that person as soon to NOW as you can and explain (don't excise) and say you're getting the reports done ASAP
2. Get the reports done ASAP
3. Figure out what happened so that you can genuinely apologize in that "I'm sorry that I did this because ___________. This is what happened. This is what I am doing to ensure it does not happen again." Keeping in mind that it's possible it was something weird on their end (email got queued for some idiot reason, who knows) but make sure you've covered your end of it.

Give them a back-up method to get ahold of you until you have this sorted out so that regardless of email you won't be MIA again.

Give what happened (which you can't change now) you are handling this as well as you can. Give yourself a break and just get the stuff done. Mistakes and accidents happen and most people are able to accept and understand that, so assume your committee members will be decent about it if it's only a one-time thing.
posted by jessamyn at 10:33 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here's some good news! I'm non-techie, but I do know the email sender can sometimes see when you've opened the emails if they use that sort of software. You just saw these because they just showed up, or were in your spam folder, etc.. Your story checks out! You DID just FIND them and open them!! You're not lying or anything nefarious! Relax!!

How does this person even know they were emailing you repeatedly if they never followed up via phone call to confirm after the 2nd email went unanswered? I'm pretty sure they dropped the ball, not you.

Return the reports and mention the emails did not show up until X date & time. Indicate you don't know if it was a spam problem or an issue with servers on either end. Confirm your email addy AND phone number for future contact. Ask them to please call you in the future if you do not reply to email in a timely fashion, assure them you have marked their addy as "Not Spam."

Let it go. I would not apologize too much because you don't actually know if this was your fault. By not following up with you via phone after the 2nd email went unread and unanswered, they kinda made the bigger mistake. Those emails coulda been going to the wrong recipient or otherwise been lost in transit.

The fact that they never followed up via an alternative contact route means these reports are not mission critical. Or maybe this person doesn't care. Or maybe this person isn't looking out for your interests. Or maybe they were really really busy themselves?

Meh. This no catastrophe. Turn in the assignment. Don't grovel, that's bad politics.
posted by jbenben at 1:09 AM on April 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

I would not worry about this at all. Unless this workplace is super dysfunctional, you will not be fired. But I wouldn't expect to be serving on this committee next year.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:21 AM on April 25, 2015

They should have followed up by phone if the request was truly urgent. Now, I would just call the person, explain that you were having e-mail issues and just got their messages, and tell them that you are on it now.

And, since you are not sure why this happened, I would ask them to call you if they don't have a response in a couple of working days from now on. It might also be a good idea to ask IT to check for any problems.
posted by rpfields at 6:48 AM on April 25, 2015

On the touchy-feely side, people remember how you handle mistakes much longer than the mistakes themselves. Be forthright and move forward, that's all you can do.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:00 AM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I do university admin support. Everyone's reports are always late. Unless these are reports which are essential to the immediate function of the school or to continued receipt of grant money (ie, if the reports are not submitted by today, you will get cut off - this is really, really rare and you would have heard from the funder by now) you might be in a little bit of grumpy trouble but you will not be fired. And even the grumpy trouble is not likely to be that serious. Everyone's reports are always late. In fact, an "early late" report within a week or two of the deadline practically counts as "on time".

You had server trouble or it went to your spam filter...that's what you say, if you have to say anything at all. Build better email practices in the future.

But seriously, unless this is an Ultra Double Plus Important Report With A Drop-Dead Date (and if it is, why didn't the chair call you?) you are doing nothing different than people in academia do all the time. Try not to be late in the future, but it's not a firing offense.
posted by Frowner at 9:04 AM on April 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Also, dude, your job is teaching. Firing a competent teacher because they were once on an optional committee and were late with some reports? That would be looney tunes - think about replacing you, the odds of getting someone competent who is a good fit who can do the tough course - you're not infinitely valuable to your institution, of course, but even in this teaching economy, recruiting, hiring and training are a pain in the ass and people don't fire core competent people over one mistake in their peripheral duties.
posted by Frowner at 9:10 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is how I messed up: another company paid for an international flight for me. And I forgot that I was going to fly that day.

That was ten years ago. I survived it.

Your story is so not a major thing. Chin up. You will be just fine.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:34 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is incredibly unlikely to be a big deal in the broader scheme of things. When something goes wrong, people are not interested in problems (the report is late), but in solutions (I'm getting it done now).

The best approach would be to 'fess up and be honest. It's entirely feasible that you never got the e-mails and, if it was that important, they would have been followed-up. Contact whoever's responsible and tell them what's happened and what you are doing to fix it. Don't lie about the e-mails ending up in your spam folder or anything, if only because that's the lie everyone uses and nobody really believes it, even when it's true. Just say 'I don't know what happened, but I just saw all these e-mails. I'm getting these reports done right away and you'll have them by x'.

Everyone screws up now and again. Everyone. Anyone who says they've never missed a work deadline is almost certainly lying. Unless this is part of a pattern, nobody is going to be too upset about it as long as you do what you can to fix the situation.
posted by dg at 4:25 PM on April 25, 2015

I, like you, am university faculty. While they talk about teaching, research, and service as the three legs of the table of faculty work, those legs are never equal in length. Depending on your institution, research or teaching may be more important, but trust me, service is always the shortest leg (which is not to say it's not important to do --- but it really, really gets short shrift in assessment of your performance).

Also? Academics are flaky. This is known. The committee chair, I assure you, may well be annoyed but is probably unsurprised. You might well not be the only person this tardy with your report, even. I was recently a week late with a fairly important personnel document. Two days after I turned it in, a colleague in a neighboring office popped by to ask me for a bit of help with his even later submission.

So, no, your job is probably fine. I mean, if you were marginal on the sort of thing that your department really cares about, this might tip you over the edge performance-review-wise, but nobody's going to be demanding your head over this.
posted by jackbishop at 11:47 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

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