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“I’ve Made a Huge Mistake”

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

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.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Kate

    August 17, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I’m in the same boat, except I have a sales job where I work from home, so letting things sit is really easy and very tempting. I’ve found that a routine really helps. Do the exact same thing every morning, and don’t let yourself get distracted. Check your email, then don’t check again until lunchtime. Set aside time each day for certain tasks. It’s helped me a great deal. And don’t worry, you are certainly not the only great person out there who occasionally is not so great at work!

  • DebbieS

    August 17, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    :::clapclapclap::: Amalah, you’re the best 🙂 That was truly inspiring to read!

  • Emily

    August 17, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I think Amy covered most of the bases and I hope Anonymous can make the best of the situtation.
    One thing I’d like to add about what to do to rememdy things… On top of following through on your promise to not let it happen again, would it be possible to try to counteract the lost money? Without specifics it’s hard to tell if this is possible, but if you tried to bring in extra sales/customers or found another innovative way to save/make the company money, it would help your overall performance.

  • sugaredharpy

    August 17, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I’m going to second the looking at your job part. I am a terrible office worker. TERRIBLE. I’m bored, I totally let things sit while I try to figure out a better way to do the least important thing on my list, etc. I was totally fired from it, the only office job I ever had and I did suck at it.
    However, I AM a stellar college instructor. I love my classes, love the actual movement of teaching and the back and forth, I NEED the way semesters work. In an office or even at a museum job like I’ve had, the deadline may be in 6 years…too long of a timeline. It’s too easy to let things sit. But in a 15 week semester? Excellent. There are further deadlines within that semester that cannot sit, even if I tried there are students expecting them. And at the end of the semester it’s over and I get a new one, with new students. Problems in one semester do not translate to the next, so it’s a fresh start a few times a year.
    Also, I know now that I cannot sit in an office all day. I just hate it and it shows. Teaching gets me moving in a day, I’m in a class for only about an hour, and I work from home a lot.
    Find your groove and do that!

  • Marnie

    August 17, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    I, too, think it’s great that you’re taking ownership of this particular issue, and that you’re willing to take ownership of how to make things better.
    As a manager, I’d like to recommend one more thing over and above what Amy said. I think it would demonstrate oodles of responsibility and ownership if you create a plan to show how you’re going to improve your performance over the next however-many months, including tasks and checkpoints, and work through it with your boss. Your boss is probably supposed to help with this, but depending on how many people she has reporting to her, she may not have the time to get to that level of detail, or she may just not be good at it.
    A couple pointers to think about when you create your plan:
    – pick 2-3 very specific things to work on. I would recommend 1 “improvement need” – say, meeting deadlines – and 1 or 2 strengths. Are you really good at building relationships? Identify how you can build relationships that will help your department/boss. Are you good at pinpointing how to improve manual processes? Make it a goal to work with you boss to suggest ways to improve a process you and the department (or whole company) use. (I might recommend looking into that whole manually-submitting-orders thing you just went through as something that could be improved… I’m just saying).
    – be sure to identify very specific tasks you can do to meet those improvement goals so that you – and more importantly, your boss – can measure your acievements.
    – set up a regular check-point with your boss to discuss how things are going. This accomplishes a couple things: 1) you and your boss come to agreement on what’s working, what’s not, and how your performance is going over all so you won’t be surprised in a few months, and 2) you get more face-time with your boss, which, provided everything is going well, is always a good thing.
    By taking the initiative to create this and work on it WITH your boss, you show her that you are willing to improve. In the meantime, you get a chance to show that that one little thing that happened was a blip, you improve your overall performance review, and make it easier to find a job you love later.
    Good luck!

  • Di

    August 17, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Although my bad work situation was 5 years ago, a lot of what she’s going through resonated for me.
    Excellent advice!
    And I wanted to let her know – it will get better. You will work harder than you thought you could, but it’s going to get better, and you will find a job that fulfills you and your needs. Trust me, I’ve been there.

  • Jaymee

    August 17, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    If you do decide to look for a new job you shouldn’t stress too much about getting a bad recommendation. You might not be able to get a reccomentation letter from your current employer, but they probably wouldn’t write you one anyways. Recommendation letters are usually written for good employees, not bad ones. When and if your new employer contacts previous/current employers nothing negative can be said about you. They are only allowed to confirm you worked there.

  • Jen

    August 18, 2009 at 12:33 am

    I just wanted to chime in and say you may save yourself some heartache, stress, and misery by just looking for another job. I was a terrible employee at my last place. I hated them, I hated the work, I hated the office culture. For the first time I was just a wretched employee because I was miserable. Surprising no one I was fired.
    I got my current job with zero trouble. They called my former employer, and all they could say was yes, I had worked there. I glossed over the ugly details in the interviews, and was hired. Three years later I’ve been promoted above women who have been here decades because I love it, so I work my butt off. Happiness makes for great employees! Go try something else, I went from one office job to another and the difference is night and day.

  • Elaine

    August 18, 2009 at 7:20 am

    I think Amy was spot-on, as well as all the commenters. You can definitely recover from this if you are willing to work at it. As someone who routinely has to write performance evaluations, you can definitely move past this if your bosses are at all fair. I know you said it seems the evals focus on the negatives, but you shouldn’t be slammed for an entire marking period if your performance has shown improvement for a significant portion of that. If that happens, and if there is any kind of appeals process, you could politely but firmly point out that your negative performance was already documented elsewhere and you feel the eval doesn’t accurately reflect the totality of your work. Maybe this will be the kick in the pants you needed to get motivated for your job, but if it’s mainly fear-based, you might want to start thinking about what you really enjoy and if there’s a way to put that into your current job or turn it into another employment opportunity. Just don’t let your perfomance drop if you do start searching for another job. Regardless, good luck!

  • Bella

    August 18, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Wow. How…..timely. I’m having almost the EXACT same issue, in that the job I’m in does nothing for me. So I let things sit. And sit. And then sit some more. Thankfully, nothing *major* has been overlooked or ignored, but the boredom. My god, it’s overwhelming at times.
    All that being said, I have acknowledged that and am now working on plans to get out of where I currently am to find something more satisfying. Something that will not allow me to procrastinate indefinitely (a now finely tuned process!).
    Anonymous, thanks for writing your letter, and Amalah, your advice is spot on, thank you. The timing of this post is a little eerie, but could not have come at a better time. I now feel like I am indeed doing the right thing!

  • Lisa M

    August 18, 2009 at 11:02 am

    I am also a bad employee (at times) and a great one at others…and I like my job. I also suffer from depression.
    Don’t let this stress drag you into another deep depressive point, where you’re making it worse by feeling like you’re not focused on work, etc. That will create an awful cycle which is near impossible to escape.
    You are not the first to screw up, and you won’t be the last. But life goes on. I’m not trying to be negative, but I really don’t want you to stress yourself out over trying to be perfect at work. It’s not possible. Just try to do your best, and realize that if you have a bad day, you can make it up the next day.
    Best of luck to you!

  • Katxena

    August 18, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Everything Amy said is spot on. I want to add one tiny detail. If you decide to find a therapist (or change your current therapist), the kind of therapy Amy recommends is called “cognitive behavioral therapy” or CBT. When interviewing therapists, you can ask them what their therapeutic approach is, and you can ask specifically if they are trained in CBT. Depending on what region of the country you are in, it can be hard to find someone who practices CBT (it’s really common in the West and Midwest, not so much in the East and Southeast), but it’s worth the search. I have experience with CBT personally (I sought therapy to help me finish my dissertation) and professionally (although I’m not a therapist, I work with programs for kids that are designed with CBT principles), and I think it’s among the most helpful models, especially if you can’t afford to or don’t want to be in therapy for years on end.

  • annon

    August 19, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Not leaving my name because I just had a formal letter end up in my HR file and a probation meeting with my HR rep. Part of it is my fault, part of it is the fault of a superior who does all she can to miscommunicate with me. No one who has worked under her has lasted more than a year, except for me (almost 2 years). I cry many mornings and broke down yesterday when I got home from work.
    Today I wore a kickass outfit that reminds me of how awesome I am and how talented I really am (not that this job uses my talents…) and dove into a cool project a coworker friend gave to me when he saw how depressed I’d been with my normal work (not that I suggest spreading how dissatisfied you are). I’m looking for another job in the field I really want but also determined to kickass at the projects I can get myself onto. Also, accepting that I won’t get a good review or event a cost-of-living raise and so making adjustments in my spending. Here, if 5 superiors say nice things and 1 says something bad, all that matters is the bad 🙁
    Also, watched some Office and ate cookie dough ice cream to make myself feel better.
    Hang in there, good luck, and thanks for making me feel less alone!

  • Quinn

    August 25, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Sorry to be responding so late, but wow did this resonate. I had several close shaves with similar things (invoices) at my last job. Hated the job, struggled with depression, struggled with self blaming and loathing, bored to tears, etc.
    Everything Amalah and the others said about therapy, CBT, and a better job is right on. You also might want to talk to this therapist about ADD. The boredom and letting things sit can totally be symptoms of adult ADD. Additionally, adult women with ADD sometimes channel that into depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety are more likely to be diagnosed in women, but if ADD is the root cause then they’ll never be fully treated by traditional depression and anxiety medications alone.
    That’s what happened to me, at least. This one diagnosis has improved my life in so many different ways. I don’t mean to read my own experiences into your letter, but it might be worth looking into.
    Good luck!