What to Do After You’ve Screwed Up Professionally

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Last month, I had an introductory meeting with the CEO of Andrews McMeel Universal and his colleagues to talk marketing. I showed up early–hair done, nails polished, kids dropped off, notes prepared, even a few emails sent before leaving the house…all before 8:15am.

Let’s face it, I was on fire.

I arrived, got off the elevator, and was greeted by one of the company’s senior executives. He shook my hand, greeted me warmly and said, “I am delighted to see you. You arrived at the right time, but unfortunately, not on the right day.”

My meeting was actually the next day. As I shared my snafu with colleagues, I realized I wasn’t the only one who, on occasion, had screwed up the basic fundamentals of Meetings 101.

Our lives are jammed with to-do lists coupled with meeting requests across multiple technologies (in April, I received meeting requests via Twitter, Facebook, my personal email, alumni email, text and LinkedIn). The result of all this chaos? A professional mishap from time to time.

So what do you do once you’ve embarrassed yourself? I asked the experts to weigh in on the subject.

You showed up late. What do you do?

“If you show up late to a lunch or scheduled meeting, don’t make excuses, ” says Alana Muller, author of Coffee, Lunch, Coffee, a networking guide for professionals. “Simply apologize and indicate you know that tardiness is not a good way to make a first impression. If you’re late, get back on track by respecting your contact’s time–don’t take up more than the originally allotted meeting duration.” If you were late to an initial meeting, the key is to be scrupulously on time–preferably even early–for months afterward in order to correct the situation.

Forget about being late, you missed a lunch or business meeting entirely!

Muller says if you missed a meeting entirely, apologize and request a second chance at the convenience of your contact. If he/she gives you that chance, be very sure to set the right tone by showing up on time (a little early is even better!) and well prepared for the meeting.

Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea, agrees with Muller. She says, “At that point, employees must understand that they will be ‘on watch’ for a while and have to perform at superior levels repeatedly in order to wash away the first negative impression.” Both experts agree it can be done, but it is going to take extraordinary effort for at least a few months.

You have taken forever to respond to email. How do you handle it?

According to Clark, responding to email in a timely manner is a growing problem in the business world. She admits that she, too, has been challenged by her bulging inbox. “Being on a book tour, my inbox (usually kept in check with only 20-30 messages) has ballooned to well past 200 messages that I haven’t responded to. It’s embarrassing because I’m well aware I’m keeping people waiting and sometimes even missing invitations to events that are long past when I finally respond–but there simply hasn’t physically been time to write back to them all. When I do respond (and it’s essential to do so eventually and not just guiltily delete the message), I apologize upfront, explain the context for my behavior (most people are reasonably forgiving if they understand the circumstances), and suggest a remedy for the situation.”

You flub the pronunciation of someone’s name

Another embarrassing issue that can be added to the list is mispronouncing someone’s name. “If you flubbed the pronunciation of your contact’s name, apologize and ask him/her to help you with the pronunciation,” Alana Muller says. “If you meet someone with a difficult-to-pronounce name, try to come up with a mnemonic device to help you remember. As a person with a difficult-to-pronounce name, I always offer a mnemonic device to help my contacts learn and remember how to pronounce my name (want to know what it is? ‘Alana, like banana!’) It sounds silly but it works.” Another tip is to repeat the person’s name during the conversation so you can cement it into memory.

What other tips, tricks do you suggest?

Rebecca Reese, vice president of human resources at Adknowledge, says “When scheduling meetings, always confirm the appointment the day prior, make sure to include your mobile phone number during the initial schedule process.”

Muller thinks the key to better scheduling is to set aside time, for well, scheduling. “One excellent practice for ensuring the accuracy of your calendar is to set a time for yourself each week, say on Friday afternoons, to confirm your appointments for the coming week,” Reese agrees and believes this could also be a daily activity: “I know it sounds weird but it works. Try to be selfish, do not let anything cause you to reschedule that time. Take an extra 15 minutes and make sure you have a handle on all the meetings for your next day. You will thank yourself tomorrow.”

“It may seem obvious, be sure to schedule adequate travel time for yourself between meetings,” Muller suggests. “Don’t just assume the travel time is built in; literally document it in your calendar to ensure no other meetings encroach on your drive, train or walk time to your next engagement.”

Since my initial flub was at Andrews McMeel, I thought I would ask Michael Stewart, the company’s head of human resources for advice. Stewart is a HR veteran and has seen it all. “If someone screws up, I will try to collect more data points on the person,” says Stewart. He added, “Most executives take the time to look at the bigger picture.”

His overall point? Everyone makes mistakes, and as awful as it may seem at the moment, you will rebound. And if handled correctly, colleagues will not only forgive you, but be impressed with your sincere attempt to right the ship.

In other words, this time, you really will be on fire.