“I’ve Made a Huge Mistake”
Well, I wrote in once before and you proved to be a great help about how to detangle huge knots in my hair so I figured I’d give this a shot again. I’m really embarrassed and can’t really talk to anyone in my life about this. So, when all else fails, Internet!
This question is well outside your normal area of advice, but as you seemed to be fairly successful while in an office environment, I was hoping you could impart some help. Or maybe your readers could.
I am, honestly, not the greatest employee in the world. I get bored and let things sit. Which is bad, I know but I’m just trying to be honest. I also struggle with depression, so my boss is completely right when she says that I’m inconsistent. When I’m on, I’m great. When I’m not — well, I’m pretty awful.
Lately, for the past three months or so, I’ve been on. Getting all my work done, being proactive, following up. But I was in the middle of a situation where I had kept a bunch of orders that should have been processed months ago (by our order fulfillment department that’s in another state) until recently. When I finally submitted them, it caused a ruckus in our order fulfillment department because they had to individually contact each and every person who had placed a credit card order. Supposedly (I say that only because I’m hearing this all fourth hand, not because I doubt the information) a bunch of customers were angry and denied the sales. We lost money. We lost customers for life.
My president was told all of this, unknown to me, in her meeting with our order fulfillment department last week. She had a conversation with my boss, who in turn had a conversation with me about this today. She has to write a letter and put it in my HR file. I’m not being fired and when I asked where this is going, as in am I on probation, am I up for firing, am I going to be disciplined, she said no. She said that this is to never happen again. I will keep on top of my order submissions. It’s up to me.
My actual question is: What do I do? Besides never letting this happen again and continuing to perform my job well (which my boss acknowledged has been the case lately) what do I do? I feel as though I’ve possibly hurt my chances for finding another job, as I believe any recommendation I may receive could be tainted. The annual reviews here are pretty brutal (they like to focus on the negative, no one gets an “exceeds expectations” anymore because they don’t think that’s possible) and I’m scared to sit through another terrible one in January. How do I find another job? Can my superiors forget about something like this? Should I be worried about being fired even though I was told I wouldn’t be? I’m so ashamed and embarrassed and completely aware that this is my fault. Again, what do I do?
Changing Bad Work Habits
Wow, I used to think there was nothing worse than being blindsided by a bad performance review, but I’m going to revise that. Knowing one is coming and having to wait four or five months for it? Worse. Much worse.
So. Okay. Let’s pick this apart and see what we can come up with. First: it’s good that you admit your mistake and are not making excuses. Provided you extended that honesty to your superiors, that’s got to count for something. Apologize, accept responsibility and promise to never let it happen again. And then you never, ever let it happen again. Full stop.
That’s really the only way to truly dig yourself out of this — to regain the trust and respect of your boss, to improve your chances of a positive recommendation down the road. There is no real other “besides.” You have to, once and for all, figure out how to always be “on” at work.
Since you seem aware of exactly what not-great work behaviors you ought to correct, it’s time to correct them, one way or another. Is it an organization thing? Too much flexibility and not enough accountability? Do you function better when tasks have a specific, non-negotiable deadline? Would taking a few minutes each morning to put together a to-do list help? Have you considered heading to the bookstore to check out some (gag, I know) personal- or professional-development related self-help books? Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, for example?
(I’m projecting my own work shortcomings here, by the way — the nature of my old job allowed me to procrastinate on things that I could have easily gotten done sooner, thus setting myself up for loads of unnecessary stress when unexpected tasks cropped up right around my other deadlines. So every day I wrote out a painfully detailed to-do list — every phone call, email, website edit, every stage of the publishing process that I needed to push every document through. Some people use online calendars to keep track of ongoing projects and deadlines [my husband publishes his to his co-workers and clients for further accountability], though I found that I needed that old-school paper list and the act of crossing stuff off. I still do, actually, as procrastination is one of a freelancer’s worst enemies, right on par with writer’s block.)
Managing Anxiety and Depression at the Office
You didn’t mention how you’re treating your depression, but if it’s a meds-only approach, I would HIGHLY recommend you seek out a therapist. Not just a therapist who will ask you to comb through your childhood to find out *why* you’re depressed, but someone who can help you focus on behavior and cognition (what you do and how you think about things) and above all, solutions. How things are going to get better in the future, in all aspects of your life, INCLUDING work. It’s horrible that you have no one to talk to about your work problem. Horrible! But so common. A therapist can be that person, who won’t judge or be disappointed in you. If your depression really is coming into play at work and is part of the problem, then Get. Thee. To. Therapy. (And not just the pharmacy.)
I imagine the next couple months will be full of anxiety for you — and understandably so. Continuing the the stellar job performance will help, as will pinpointing the exact strategies that enable you to do that. (If your review includes a self-assessment, make sure you mention the specific ways you are addressing the “letting things sit” habit, so hopefully the order snafu will fade into almost a non-issue. Yes, you’re aware, and you’re actively working to ensure it will never happen again, via X, Y and Z.) But it’s not going to be fun, spending 40 hours a week waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the smallest slip-up, for getting blamed for something that isn’t even your fault, etc. You’re using words like “embarrassed” and “ashamed” and clearly imagining worst-case scenarios. That’s a lot to deal with, particularly if you can’t talk about it with anyone. Again, a therapist could really, really help.
But here’s the thing: this isn’t the end of the world. Your company didn’t go bankrupt. You didn’t cause people to lose their jobs or deny customers their life-saving cancer medications. You are not the first person to screw up spectacularly at work. You are not the first employee to get a formal reprimand in her HR file or suffer through a brutally negative performance review. Even if you did lose your job over this (which I highly doubt you will, provided you stay on top of things), that wouldn’t be the end of the world either. I’ll never forget the one and only time I had to fire someone — a woefully lazy editorial assistant with no eye for detail — and it turned out to be a good thing for her. She admitted that she simply was not interested in the corporate editor path after all, went back to grad school to pursue a more academic career. Cliched, but true. It happened for a reason.
And on that note, maybe your JOB is part of the problem here as well — it’s clearly not inspiring you and doesn’t really sound like your dream employment situation. Certainly, pull yourself together, develop some better work habits, focus on the practical. But figuring out if there’s another path out there for you would be ANOTHER good topic to explore with a good therapist. You’ve got the self-blame thing down REALLY REALLY WELL. Maybe there’s just something about your job that brings out these less-than-ideal habits, and you aren’t truly doomed to be a “bad employee” no matter where else you go. Let’s ease up on the self-flagellation and try a little more self-reflection.
Published August 17, 2009.
Last updated December 6, 2017.