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Mea Culpa!

9/18/2006 7:02:24 PM

By Lee Ann McGillivray

A few months after starting my first real job (meaning my first job where I didn't depend on tips to pay the bills or free handouts from the kitchen staff to eat), I made a big mistake. Or, at least, I felt like it was a big mistake – the biggest and most stupidest mistake anyone in the world had ever made or would ever make again. (Perhaps I was blowing things a little out of proportion, but I was completely mortified.)

I remember being incredibly embarrassed and upset with myself. I remember being afraid about what would happen when my gross ineptitude was discovered. I remember thinking, "Well, no one has noticed yet … maybe I should just pretend it didn't happen." And almost immediately after that, I remember thinking, "You're a grown-up now. You have to say something, and you have to say something now!"

So I did.

And the world didn't come to an end. The earth didn't open up and swallow me whole. The sky didn't fall in on me. Even more importantly, I didn't lose my job. In fact, my boss didn't even yell at me. Instead, we fixed the problem together and we moved on.

The lesson I learned that day is that being a good person, or good employee, is not about never making mistakes. Instead, it's about how you deal with your mistakes. Do you feel mortified, but own up to them? Or do you feel mortified, and try to hide them?

Until a few years ago, I thought these were the only two options. I assumed that everyone felt bad when they made a mistake. Then I met She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was hired to work with me and, initially, I liked her. She seemed to pick things up quickly, she seemed eager to learn, and she was outgoing and friendly. But then I started noticing that she wasn't that detail oriented and she seemed to have a problem with authority. At least, she had a problem with my authority – she was as sweet as pie to the boss. I let it go, thinking that perhaps it was growing pains. She was young, after all, and this was her first real job. Maybe she just needed a bit of time to see how the office worked and to better understand her role.

Then she made a mistake. A big one. She sent a sensitive file to the wrong client. As soon as I discovered her mistake, I went to speak with her about it. Remembering my own experience, I approached the subject gently. I wasn't accusatory. I didn't point fingers. I didn't yell or try to make her feel bad. I simply explained that I had noticed she had sent a file to the wrong client, and that we now needed to correct the problem.

Nothing could have prepared me for her response.

She was not embarrassed or upset, she didn't even understand why it was a problem or why we had to do anything to correct it. I believe her exact words were: "Well, if they [the client] haven't said anything, why do we have to?" I was flabbergasted. I tried to explain to her how the mistake reflected badly on our company. I tried to explain that it didn't matter that the client hadn't said anything. I tried to explain that when you make a mistake you have to own up to it, and that it's actually preferable to do it before someone notices and makes you own up to it.

What I failed to realize at the time was that, unlike me, not everyone feels guilty and embarrassed when they make a mistake. And, incredibly, there are those who won't even acknowledge having done something that is obviously wrong.

My coworker who scans through licensing body disciplinary reports for one of our columns gave me a perfect example. She told me about the report on one RN who, over the course of one weekend, made a total of 58 medication errors (and falsified medication sheets) and, "when questioned about the incidents … appeared not to understand the seriousness of her actions and did not respond appropriately to address, defend or explain her actions." Her theory must have been "if I didn't know it was wrong, it can't possibly be my fault, so I can't possibly be blamed for anything, and all's well." This is essentially the theory that George from Seinfeld used when he claimed that he didn't know that it was wrong to have sex with the cleaning woman on his desk at work.

Ignorance may have been bliss, but neither the nurse, George, nor She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named kept their jobs.

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