Everyone makes mistakes, but don’t let one professional mistake ruin your personal brand. This week, I watched as news of a United Airlines passenger being dragged from a plane went viral, damaging the company brand. Even a very public mistake, such as the UA Flight 3411 incident, can be neutralized so that it doesn’t do lasting harm to a corporate or personal brand, but you need to take action. If you have made a career-threatening error, what can you do? The same as many corporations do, here’s how:
- Own your mistake. “I made a mistake.” While you don’t have to make it the first thing you talk about, you do have to take steps to own it, rather than diminish or hide it. Whether you’re trying to keep your job, or get a new one, the elephant in the room is yours, so name it. Your reputation will be the better for it.
- Apologize/show contrition. “I wish I had made a different choice.” If it’s a current mishap, apologize for what you did wrong and for everyone’s discomfort or trouble. Keep it general, but cover the bases. If you only apologize for the result and not the error, it looks like you learned nothing. If it’s a past error, state the breadth or gravity to show you have examined your choices.
- State your conclusion. “I’ve learned to do better.” What are you doing, or did you already do, to make things right? This can include changes in your own behaviour, changes in organizational rules, or changes to corporate culture.
- Show your commitment to ongoing professional growth. “I now know that I have to be sensitive to ____, and learning this has made me a better leader and a better person. I’m able to pass on what I’ve learned to others, as well, to prevent further mistakes”. What has this event taught you, and how are you a better manager, leader, and professional going forward? This information shows hiring influencers that they can safely move forward, as you’re unlikely to make such a mistake again and you’ve done your best to grow from it.
These major, public, and very damaging mistakes can be turned into a great success story if you follow these steps. From HR nightmares to failed businesses, you can recover. Yes, you made a big mistake, but you know what it was, you made things as right as you could, and you’ve learned not only not to repeat it but how to prevent others from making the same mistake. It’s over and you’re moving on. Recruiters and HR managers can, too.
These mistakes should never be hidden, so don’t try to lie about them or leave them out of your professional story. Instead, use them to your advantage. When HR or a hiring influencer asks you about your biggest mistake and how you handled it, offer it to them on a silver platter. Here’s my worst choice, how I fixed it as best I could, and now I’m a better fit for my job or this potential position because of, not in spite of, this terrible mistake.
Much as United will have to do in the coming days, weeks, and even months, you will have to refer back to the wrong choice or terrible decision. As with any corporate brand, to remove the tarnish from your personal brand, you’ll have to work hard at being open about correcting and learning from a mistake that people are bound to mention for quite some time. Chances are, both your personal brand and United Airline’s brand will survive and thrive after a major mistake has become a mere footnote to a greater success story!