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Overcoming career derailers

By Elaine Varelas, 7/2/2007

When celebrities screw up, it seems to make their stars climb even higher. Instead of derailing their careers, when the rich and famous are caught in compromising situations-DUI arrests, extramarital affairs, rehab stints, even jail time-they become tabloid fodder and seem to become more popular.

While this may be true for celebrities and their foibles, is it the case in the corporate world?

Many events that would have traditionally knocked a career off track are less likely to do so today. Mergers and acquisitions, layoffs, or a bad boss used to mean the end to a successful career. Today these are everyday occurrences. Since they are so much more common, people have learned to rebound and continue their careers with other organizations. These events are obstacles, but they have evolved into minor blips on the career radar screen.

In today's workplace, it is the personal gaffes-and the mishandling of them afterward-that have become more difficult to bounce back from. Unethical behavior, incessant gossip, not keeping your word, controversial blogging, and intolerant speech are the things that can tarnish a career.

If you make one of these personal missteps, what can you do? Is your career over, or your job with the company? Is there some way to salvage your job and all the accomplishments you made before the mistake? How can HR managers help employees who may have committed one of these personal errors? Can developmental opportunities help other employees learn to avoid the collision course?

Here are some steps to follow to help get your career back on track:

  • Admit your mistake - Recognize what you did and come clean immediately. Denying it in the hope that it will go away rarely works. A contrite acknowledgement is often welcome, and the forgiveness process can begin.

  • Take the Band-aid approach - As much as it might be painful to rip off a Band-aid quickly, it is torture to do it slowly. The same thing goes for admitting a mistake. Tell the whole truth right from the beginning to avoid dragging it out and having it uncovered bit by bit.

  • Apologize - Sometimes we underestimate the importance of saying we're sorry, but it is a very important step in the forgiveness process. Apologies should be personal-not a blanket statement made in front of a group. Rather, they should be made one-on-one to everyone who is involved. Apologies mean taking responsibility, not deflecting it, as in, "I'm sorry for what I did," not, "I apologize, butů.." Depending on the severity of the offense, this can be enough to make it go away.

  • Don't force people to let it go - Of course, the apology may not be enough. It may only be a step in the process. You made the mistake, so you don't get to decide when it's over. Other people do.

  • Take your lumps - In the time immediately following your gaffe, you may get passed over for big projects or may not be recognized for the work you do. Don't complain. You have to be okay with being snubbed until it blows over.

  • Be a star - Now is the time to be the ultimate team player. Have a positive attitude, keep the company's goals in mind, work hard, and look out for your colleagues. Do your job as if you're on camera, because you are being watched.

  • Tap your allies - Approach colleagues in the organization who will go to bat for you, or who can speak to your strong points. If you can garner support from fellow employees, it will reflect positively on you with company leadership. You may want to approach colleagues with something like, "I know I don't deserve your help, but will you support me through this?" Hopefully, you have already built these relationships. It is important to ask for support and not bargain or trade. These allies can also warn you if things start to look grim for your future with the organization.

  • Know when to say when - How long do you have to wait it out? It's difficult to determine since career missteps can run the range from stealing someone's lunch from the company refrigerator to insulting all of the women in a department. At some point, you may realize that you've done everything right to help you recover from your gaffe, but you will forever have a target on your back. How do you know, and how can HR managers let employees know? It may be time to ask the tough question of your boss, "Is it time for me to go?" If you can't get a straight answer from management, enlist the help of an ally to give you the truth, and be prepared for an answer you may not want to hear. If they tell you that you can't rebound, have these allies lined up to serve as references when you begin a job search.

Are we moving toward being a society of forgiveness? Celebrity blunders are more publicized and celebrated than ever before, but this isn't always the case in the workplace. If you commit an offense on the job, eat crow, apologize and wait, but know when to call it quits. You may have made a mistake, but you can't let your career crumble because of it. It may just be time to move on and rebuild your career elsewhere.

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