how can I explain a mistake wasn’t mine without looking like a tattletale? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my current job for nearly a year. Things were pretty rocky at first, but I’ve been making excellent progress so far that my boss has complimented me on several times. Thanks to a new diagnosis and successful treatment for ADHD, I’m starting to feel much more confident in myself and my position.

One of my struggles comes with small mistakes that end up causing issues further down the line. I hate to be “that guy,” but these mistakes are generally not my fault, but the fault of the people providing me with the information. For example, when I entered a new project into the system, two of the numbers of the client ID were transposed. When the project wasn’t set up on time because of the typo, the blame came down on me. The thing is, I copied the client number from the account manager’s email, so the mistake wasn’t mine. There have been other, similar issues that have tripped me up, and I worry that I look sloppy and careless. Any time I do make a legitimate mistake, I own up to it and ask for details that I can reference to avoid it in the future, or share my plan of action to avoid making the mistake again.

I don’t want to look like the kind of person who dodges the blame for mistakes, even if the mistake isn’t my fault. While my boss hasn’t commented on this pattern as a whole, just the occasional private email correcting the mistake, I’m still worried that a bunch of little mistakes may turn into a big problem. I try to independently verify everything that crosses my desk, but this is incredibly time consuming and not always possible.

The next time I inadvertently take the fall for someone else’s mistake, how do I address it with my boss that doesn’t leave me looking like a tattletale?

When it’s something minor and it’s just once or twice, the best approach is usually just to let it go. Everyone is human, everyone makes mistakes, and it’s fine to just fix the thing and move on.

But if it’s happening multiple times, or the mistake is a big enough deal that blame is in play or it’s going to make you look bad, then it’s worth correcting the record.

In doing that, don’t focus on the blame piece. Approach it as just getting facts correct, and possibly as problem-solving when that makes sense. You want your tone to be matter-of-fact and not defensive. For example:

* “Oh, it looks like Jane transposed two of the numbers in the client ID. I’ll get it fixed.”
* “It looks like one of the account managers transposed two of the numbers in the client ID. I’ll get it fixed and see if there’s a way to build in a check for that in the future.”
* “Hmmm, it came to me that way and looks like I did copy it correctly at my stage — so let me figure out what happened so it doesn’t happen again.”

If it’s happening a lot, sometimes it makes sense to address the big picture: “I know we’ve been running into errors when client IDs are entered into the new system. Every time it happens, I’ve been checking to make sure it’s not a problem with my system, and it looks like the numbers are getting transposed before they reach me. So I’m going to talk to the account managers to see if there’s a way to verify the forms have the correct numbers before they get sent to me for entering.”

There can sometimes be a fine line between explaining the problem and throwing someone under the bus (both of which are more useful frameworks than tattling, which mostly doesn’t apply at work). The easiest way to stay on the right side of the line is to use a problem-solving framework like the examples above.

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