Your dumbest moment at work

Ever made a mega-blunder on the job - or fear you might someday make one? Here's the best way to failure-proof your career.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Okay, so you probably haven't charged outrageous amounts of phony business expenses to your employer, like former Wal-Mart vice chairman Thomas Coughlin, No. 35 on Business 2.0's 101 Dumbest Moments in Business list. Or hit the "send" button on a mass mailing of racist e-mails, like (No. 59). But everybody makes mistakes, and sometimes they're bad enough - or just embarrassing enough - that slinking away to a different company where nobody knows you can seem like the only real option.

But is it?

Pamela Erhardt, Ph.D., a managing partner at Corporate Coaching International in Pasadena, Calif., has spent the past 25 years advising clients at companies like Northrop Grumman (Charts); Amgen (Charts); Warner Bros., a division of Time Warner (Charts), Fortune's parent; ConocoPhillips (Charts), and Hitachi (Charts). She often gets called in to help beleaguered executives figure out how to overcome a blunder and move on. Some excerpts from our recent conversation:

Q. Often people who have goofed feel they have no choice but to leave their job and start over with a clean slate somewhere else. But let's say you've made a big, visible mistake - is there anything you can do that's less drastic?

A. That generally depends on three things. First, who else was involved in the mistake? If you've failed because you disobeyed higher-ups, or you've failed in such a way that senior management looks bad as a result: Good-bye, you're probably leaving.

A second factor is, how severe was the mistake? It's usually not so hard to recover your reputation after a minor mishap. A failed project that cost 2% of the divisional budget isn't the same as one that cost 20%. And obviously, if you've done an Enron and damaged large numbers of people's future prospects - shareholders, retirees, employees - rebuilding your good name will take many, many years of hard work, if it ever happens at all. Look at how long it's taking ['80s junk-bond king] Mike Milken to rehabilitate himself after his prison term.

But there's a third element to all this that often gets overlooked, and that is how well you get along with your boss and your colleagues and how good they think you are. If you've built strong relationships all along the way, and if people generally trust you and think highly of your work, you can usually recover even from a very big misstep. If not, then not.

So the time to failure-proof your career is now. Start earning people's forgiveness before you need it. It's just like any other kind of networking: Work on building solid professional relationships before there is a crisis - before you have a real need to call on those people.

Q. What's the first step in bouncing back from a screwup?

A. You have to sincerely apologize to whoever was affected by the mistake, and explain how you plan to avoid repeating it. Often, people's first impulse is to try and spread the blame around, which is the worst thing you can do. I had a client about 6 months ago who said some things he shouldn't have, in a public forum, and then he tried to shift the blame.

First he claimed he was only kidding and [that] everyone took his remarks too seriously. Then he tried to find out who told the CEO - who was offended by the remarks, even though he wasn't present at the gathering - what he'd said. The client ended up leaving the company and he's now trying to put the pieces of his career back together.

You have to take responsibility for what you did or said. People have to see that you are sorry. Getting defensive or trying to excuse yourself won't work.

Q. Once you've apologized and done whatever you can to make amends, what next?

A. Move on! It can be hard to let go of a failure. Right now I'm working with a woman in a large global company who was in charge of a big, risky project. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was a disaster. But she had such strong connections within the company, and such good relationships, that senior management gave her another chance and moved her into another big job.

That's when I came in - to help her stop going back and obsessively analyzing what had happened. You do need to reflect on your mistakes of course, but when you get to the point where you're just beating yourself up, you have to let it go, or it will undermine everything you do from now on. You'll start second-guessing yourself.

This is tough for many of my clients. Part of what I do is to help them put things in perspective - to help them see that having failed at something doesn't make you "a failure," unless you let it.

What was your dumbest moment at work? Were you able to recover? How? And what blunders have you seen co-workers or bosses make? Post your stories on the Ask Annie blog.

Business 2.0's 101 Dumbest Moments in Business

More dumb moments: 18 bosses behaving badly

Office-party blunder? How to live it down

Your questions for author Jim Collins: What would you like to ask the best-selling author of "Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't"? Collins, an avid rock climber, runs a management laboratory in Boulder, Colo. The best questions will be posed to Collins in an upcoming interview and may appear in a future Fortune story.  Top of page