Saving Face and Showing Grace

July 18, 2011 • communication maven

We all make mistakes. Everyone who watched Sesame Street or Mister Rogers growing up learned that much. Social standards (and TV mentors) suggest that when we mess up we need to admit our fault and amend the situation. On the other side of the coin, when someone comes to us to confess such a mistake, we should be understanding and show them forgiveness. But things seem to get more complicated in the business world. It’s important for employers to have guidelines when it comes to someone dropping the ball.

One complicating factor, especially in the service industry, is that there’s a third party in most situations- the customer. Besides acknowledging an employee’s mistake, an employer will need to reconcile with their client. While it can be hard to accept fault for someone else’s error, it is usually the employer who takes responsibility for their workers. It kind of comes with the job description. Most rational customers appreciate and respond to a company that’s up front and asks how they can right the situation for the wronged party.

When it comes to handling the issue internally, the best thing an organization can do is turn the problem into a positive as much as possible. This is a time to implement policies that will prevent further occurrences or at least help the “clean-up” go smoothly. Particularly for small businesses, they may choose to customize this standard procedure based on the circumstances. With a small staff and close relationships, it’s easy to tell when the employee is taking the event seriously. If not, it would be smart to put some serious consequences in place- making sure to give detailed explanation as to why they were necessary. This could be anything from documenting the problem to terminating a position.  For the employee who is aware of their oversight and genuinely apologetic, they probably don’t need a lengthy lecture and constant reminders about their failure. Of course it can’t go unmentioned, but perhaps a straightforward conversation acknowledging the facts and results will be sufficient.

With all involved parties acting with humility and respect, a dropped ball can have a positive outcome. Customers may not like to be let down, but companies can use the opportunity to showcase integrity amidst imperfection. Employees will be equipped to handle certain situations appropriately or avoid them altogether. Company policies can become more efficient and business relationships can grow stronger. Clichés from children’s television neighborhoods don’t always make everything better, but we really can learn from our mistakes.