How do I talk with a boss about a mistake I made two years ago?
June 8, 2015 7:02 AM   Subscribe

At my job, I'm currently up for a position that will have significantly more responsibility. One of my bosses is completely on board, while the other is still mad at me for a mistake I made two years ago. She wants to hash out our "unfinished business."

Two years ago, I was less than a month sober and was distracted and flaky in the way that often comes during the first few months of recovery. I was extremely late on a project, and, while I apologized profusely and eventually turned in the work, it was an ugly situation. I felt terrible, but since that project I have worked hard to atone for that by being a model employee. I guess my question is that I'm wondering what an employer wants to hear after this length of time. I take full responsibility for my actions, and I want to make this right, but I'm kind of at a loss. Do I approach it like an amends? Do I focus on my good work since then? Thank you so much for your help.
posted by socktothepuppet to Work & Money (12 answers total)
I guess my question is that I'm wondering what an employer wants to hear after this length of time.

"I screwed up. It won't happen again, because I had some personal issues at the time that have since been resolved. After the incident, all my work has been completed on-time and correctly. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

I want to make this right

You have. You've done your job.

Do I approach it like an amends?

Any employer that wants you to beg for a promotion and hash out "unfinished business" is acting unprofessionally. The way to respond to that is to act professionally, which means not to focus on out-of-work issues (like whatever resulted in your "less than a month sober" comment), not to focus on things that happened two years ago (!), and to focus on what matters - the profitability of the business right now. You're a good worker now. That's all that matters.
posted by saeculorum at 7:09 AM on June 8, 2015 [24 favorites]

Nthing saeculorum's script 100%. If it were me, I would also make a list of all your completed projects since that time, and the completion date (assuming on time or before it was due), and hand that list to the person of the start of the meeting.

For whatever reason, even though you might have done everything correctly after a time point, many people make stories in their head based on one event or silence (various types of cognitive biases). I suspect if a person who did this sees the data in front of them, he or she might realize that the internal script/conclusions that they have for you is no longer accurate, and that a significant amount of time has elapsed.

Save that list ans reuse it again, whether it be for review time and/or if you ever find yourself searching for a new job.

Hope that you get your promotion, OP.
posted by Wolfster at 7:45 AM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

"I understand your concern, since that was a major mistake. But I've learned so much since then. Besides nailing project a b c and d, I also have put in place productivity/time management improvements like This Tool and These New Procedures that not only ensure that I am on track but that other stakeholders in the projects are updated and kept on task themselves. I'm really grateful I've been able to get another opportunity to prove myself, and I look forward to putting my experience and passion for Blahblahblah Co to work in this new role."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:57 AM on June 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'd also stick with saeculorum's script, only I'd change "personal issue" to "health issue." It's a quibbly bit of semantics, but it's slightly harder for jerkass bosses to justify holding health issues (which sobriety and recovery ARE) against employees in perpetuity.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:28 AM on June 8, 2015 [24 favorites]

I would first make sure, if you haven't already, that it's just that one project she's upset about. I agree that one incident two years ago should be forgotten by now, but if there was a pattern of unreliability that lasted longer than that before you got sober, she may be annoyed if you write it off as a one-time thing.

Again, the two years of reliable work should still trump it, but make sure you understand her concerns before addressing them.
posted by jaguar at 8:28 AM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

She wants to hash out our "unfinished business."
Do I approach it like an amends? Do I focus on my good work since then?

Go meet, since it sounds like that's what she wants. Listen. Have in your head or on paper a list of things you've done right and evidence that you haven't screwed up since then. be polite but also clear about the fact that you had a difficult time in life, but that you addressed the source of the problem, and it has never happened again. Check to see if there's some perception this manager has that is unfounded or that needs to be addressed. i would not disclose alcohol abuse; it's none of her business. People get way too involved in other people's personal lives and it's really not helpful or appropriate.
posted by theora55 at 8:30 AM on June 8, 2015

Remember, you can't force anyone to accept your amends (in whatever form they take). You screwed up, you apologized and did the work, you've been showing your responsibility and good deeds since. You can only offer her your sincere apologies and then let her decide what she wants to do with it.

(The best thing I ever heard in a meeting was a guy who was a year sober and expected his friends and family to throw him a big party to show how much he had changed and how far he had come. They did not and he was upset because ... well, he had come SO FAR. But then he realized that coming far doesn't always make up for how far you had to come from. Moral of the story? For some people, who we are NOW doesn't cancel out who we were THEN. But that's not on you. It's on them.)
posted by mrfuga0 at 9:47 AM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh god, find a new job. This is the work equivalent of dating someone who always brings up that one shitty thing you did years ago whenever you have a serious fight.

I was in a situation pretty much exactly like this(but worse, since i had gotten blamed for something my boss told me to do and later lied about). I ended up not getting the raise/promotion, and it was still referenced repeatedly years later. Eventually my responsibilities were pared back and it was kind of implied that one of the reasons i "couldn't be counted on" was that stupid situation years ago.

This is incredibly unprofessional behavior dressed up in a suit and tie.
posted by emptythought at 1:53 PM on June 8, 2015

Response by poster: So, used saeculorum's script, and it got pretty bad. The boss said that she couldn't believe I was still being vague about what the issue was and that if I didn't trust her how could she trust me. She kinda forced my hand into self-disclosing my alcoholism and then had the gall to say that if I had told her none of these problems would have happened. I agreed that I handled the initial incident poorly, but also said that my recovery is very personal and that at the time I felt embarrassed and ashamed to admit I was an alcoholic. She then said that perhaps people can change, and that she would be willing to discuss the promotion. Honestly, right now I feel sorta horrified that I let her bully me into disclosing a health issue and self-flagellate to her satisfaction. We don't have HR where I work, but the whole situation leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. Anyway, I held it together until I was off the phone, and then cried a while. Am feeling a bit better about everything, but yeah. Terrible.
posted by socktothepuppet at 2:11 PM on June 8, 2015

I am so sorry that this happened to you. You handled this situation with an incredible amount of grace. Please know that your boss's actions were not only unkind and unethical, but illegal. Under ADA, an employer is only allowed to inquire about a disability (which alcoholism is) in a limited way in order to determine whether accommodations are needed. Once it was determined that you don't need accommodations the questioning should have ended. You don't need to disclose the details of your health situation, especially since your job is not currently impacted. If you do choose to remain with this company and are passed over for the promotion, please contact an employment attorney. This sounds like an EEOC violation waiting to happen and you do have rights.
posted by batbat at 3:22 PM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, I am so sorry. This sounds terrible.

Assuming you plan (at least provisionally) to stay with the company and get the promotion, I'd write her a follow-up email saying something like this.

"I'm glad we spoke, and I hope we addressed everything you had hoped we would. I want to reiterate that I am sorry about [the screw-up]. I feel bad that I let the company down. I also think it's worth us acknowledging that in the two years since [incident], I have handled my work well, and met my responsibilities. I think it's reasonable for the organisation to have had concerns about my performance based on [incident]: I also feel like it's reasonable for the organisation to set aside those concerns at this point, given my track record since. I would like to be considered for [the promotion], and I would appreciate knowing if you have concerns that remain unaddressed."

I think that would lay out your case clearly, and a reasonable person would agree that years-old mistakes are trumped by your performance since. It also clearly puts the focus on the future, and implicitly suggests she's being churlish still carrying this around, and gives her the opportunity to gracefully let it go.

Good luck.
posted by Susan PG at 3:30 PM on June 8, 2015

After reading your update, you have a shit boss who I would seriously think twice about working for or with. You gave her the ammo she was looking for and I wouldn't be surprised if your past alcoholism comes up again when she needs a vague reason to distrust you or make people question your judgement. I've had this kind of boss before and I would never have the stress of it again - most good bosses would have acknowledged it, asked it if would happen again, and to come to them if you needed anything. Unless there was a reason to inquire about the exact specifics (which in this instance there wasn't), it's all indifferent.

I personally wouldn't take the promotion and would start looking for a new job.
posted by lpcxa0 at 7:57 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

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