BBC Capital

Work Ethic

Should you fess up to a mistake at work?

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Q. If I notice a mistake in my work after I hand it over to my boss but before it's shown to clients, what is my ethical obligation to tell him? If I do, it's likely to have implications for my career and my year-end bonus. If I don't, and my boss or the client finds out later, I'm in bigger trouble. If no one discovers the mistake, I'll feel guilty. In general, what is my obligation to admit fault at work? 

If you mess up, it’s your responsibility to fess up.

Yes, you might damage your reputation with your boss and colleagues, but, let’s face it, you deserve it. Next time, you’ll be more careful in your work.

Sound harsh? Here in the workplace, we’re all adults, and actions have consequences. You have a duty to your employer, and, in certain professions, to your clients as well.

Chartered financial analysts, for instance, have an obligation to admit fault if they find mistakes in their work.

“If you say nothing, you are potentially violating the following Standards of Professional Conduct that all members and candidates of CFA Institute must adhere,” said Michael McMillan, director of Ethics and Professional Standards at the institute, which oversees the CFA designation.

There may be mitigating circumstances that will cause your boss to see your error in a better light. Maybe circumstances have changed without your knowledge, leading to the mistake. Perhaps you gave the wrong price quote for your company’s products, without knowing that your competitors had recently raised their prices. Or your report recommended the company take a course of action without noting new regulations that have just been instituted. This sort of mistake still makes you less meticulous than your company requires, but it’s also more understandable.

“Your employer does not expect perfection from you; however, they do expect you to own up to your mistakes,” McMillan said.

Many professions are governed by formal ethics rules or by government regulations. Those industries that don’t have such rules still have an ethical framework, even if it’s unwritten, under which participants are expected to follow certain guidelines. Chances are that hiding your error is against these rules.

Certainly that’s the case for CFAs, McMillan said. He listed a half-dozen professional rules that require admitting this mistake, including the duty to represent your work accurately, be loyal to your employer, and put your client’s interests before your own or your company’s. 

When in doubt, use the well-known Grandma standard: if you told Granny that you knew you’d made a mistake at work but were hiding it from your boss, would she be ashamed of you or disappointed in you?

After you’ve confessed your mistake, and fixed it, concentrate on avoiding similar errors in the future. Pay more attention, do more research, or think before you submit something. You’ll make more mistakes — we all do — but hopefully they will be different ones next time.

If you're found out before you admit your mistake, the consequences could be dire. At best, your boss — and perhaps the client, if it goes that far — could be left with a permanent negative view of your job performance. At worst, you might get labeled as dishonest. Employees who don't have their employer's trust don't last long in their jobs. 

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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