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Beware the Tipping Point When an Honest Mistake Becomes a Cover Up

One of the most common forms of secrecy in the modern workplace is the concealing of mistakes

Businesses can be a lot like soap operas in one important respect – a secret never stays secret forever. It’s only ever waiting in the background today to become tomorrow’s main plot line.

One of the most common forms of secrecy in the modern workplace is the concealing of mistakes – it is this small and unnecessary crime that results in more dismissals than any other kind of misconduct. People make mistakes; it’s a natural part of being human. Immediate acknowledgement, combined with ideas for fixing the problem, will always be the best course. 

Everyone makes mistakes; people respect colleagues who admit to it and get to work on making it right. Whatever the situation, we are usually presented with a fork in the road, where the obvious need to face the music conflicts with the immediate ability to suppress the problem.

There is a crucial tipping point when honesty becomes dishonesty.

In this instant, if you choose the wrong path, your integrity flies out the window along with most of your chances of walking back your mistake. There’s always a point where you get to make a call on what you’re going to do:  either pull over, admit you’ve got a flat tire and ask for help; or keep driving, hoping nobody notices and guaranteeing reduced performance and damage to the car. You won’t be able to drive forever, but every yard you drive is foolishness, and you’re undermining your credibility every minute. 

Not so long ago, a colleague of mine chose the wrong path. In a moment of carelessness, an otherwise capable and valued sales rep, failed to inform her customer about an additional cost for which they would be liable under the terms of the contract they were signing. She missed it; she just got the math wrong on a busy day. Later on, when the customer good naturedly refused to pay the cost, assuming it was an invoicing mistake, my colleague agreed and told them that we would carry the cost ourselves. The contract was immediately rendered unprofitable. In a moment of foolishness, my colleague buried the mistake. She was trusted, she owned all contact with the customer – who remained happy with arrangements, ignorant of the whole problem which they assumed to be an error made in good faith on the first invoice. She was able to hide the mistake for weeks.  Nobody noticed until the following quarter that the arrangement was actually burning money.

At that point, the right questions were asked and the details emerged. Tears, apologies and packed boxes followed. And why? Because she didn’t walk into her boss’s office five minutes after realizing the mistake, face the embarrassing truth, and get the support she needed to fix the problem – which in this instance would almost certainly have been a frank conversation between her boss and the customer, a compromise, and a reduced - but still profitable - margin.  No big deal. All will be forgiven within a week, maybe there’ll be some closer oversight next time.

We write frequently about how seemingly trivial events can dramatically affect your career.  These stories include careless texting mistakes that corrupt vital data security, career moves that seem to happen by accident, and here, the little white lie of omission.

The last few years have provided no end of evidence to support the notion that fessing up now will save a lot more trouble later. It is true on a corporate level; it’s true on a personal level. The tangled web begins with a very simple individual decision, taken at the tipping point where incompetence becomes malice. It ends with a global financial crisis, a Ponzi scheme, the collapse of a great career, or more likely – just the loss of a job.

Disgraced Olympic sprinter Marion Jones was shown a small vile of liquid and asked if she had ever seen it before. This was her tipping point. The truth would have been painful, but a lot less painful than the eventual prison term, which resulted entirely from her lie to federal investigators in answer to that very specific question. The truth – as she must have known then in her heart of hearts, was coming out all the same.

Ironically, it is Lance Armstrong who appears to have made a far more sensible decision. Perhaps, having seen the writing on the wall, he chose a path that will leave whatever he has done in the realm of athletics, where Marion Jones must surely wish she had left hers. The criminal investigation into Armstrong remains closed.

Ultimately, the question that fascinates a great many people when it comes to the cyclist is simply this: How could he possibly have thought that those hidden things would remain hidden? If the conspiracy touches as many people as the USADA’s 200 page report claims, it’s incredible to believe that anyone involved in the alleged activities could possibly have thought they would remain secret.  

The only way three people can keep a secret, says the Chinese proverb, is if two of them are dead.  When the time comes for you to face that fork in the road, plan on a full disclosure approach. Take responsibility; start moving past it there and then.

The chances are you’ll be disclosing everything in the end anyway, but from a very different position. 

More Stories By Richard Spragg

Richard Spragg is currently the Senior VP of Marketing for Talascend. Talascend is a provider of human resources in the engineering, construction, technology and manufacturing industries. Today, Talascend brings its clients the opportunity to fully staff projects from a single source, creating an opening for substantial cost savings and increased efficiency. Richard has 14 years of experience in marketing, engineering and construction, HR & staffing in both the UK and USA. Richard's specialties include marketing, recruitment operations, public realtions and business development. He writes on various subjects including global engineering jobs, staffing and marketing in the technical sector.