Elizabeth Arnott, SPHR
Taking Responsibility: Why You Should Step Up in Times of Failure
It was not my fault. I wanted to shout it to all our employees. I wanted them to know that they could trust me and that I wasn't making mistakes. I mean, it REALLY wasn't my fault. It was the state retirement system. I could point my finger at least three other people. In fact, I didn't have control over any of it. But the end result was that many of my employees were going to have to contribute additional funds to their retirement account each paycheck for the rest of the year, because of this mistake.
I started to write the all-staff email. "Unfortunately, the state retirement system failed to notify us..." That didn't sound great. "Although I did everything right, the state retirement system did not." That didn't sound right either. I went through numerous drafts. Each time, I imagined I was an employee opening an email telling me that an error was made and consequently, I had to contribute an additional $50 per paycheck for the rest of the year.
There was no way to lessen the sting. I realized that they were not going to care who made the mistake. What they wanted to know was the solution and how we fixed it going forward. Payroll was part of HR. Retirement was part of HR. I was the leader of the HR team. Ultimately, it was my responsibility.
In the end, I owned it. I explained what happened. I apologized for the mistake and for the stress that it was going to cause them. I owned it. I took measures with the state retirement office so that it wouldn't happen again. Some employees were mad. Some employees were rude. But the majority of the responses I got were kind, understanding and appreciative of the explanation and the apology. They knew they could trust me to be upfront and to fix the issues.
Recently, I read about an HR tech company who had promised their first year clients that they would never have to pay more for their service. Now, several years later, they had to adjust the pricing in order to be sustainable. They were honest and straightforward. They did not pass the buck. They took responsibility for their mistakes. They lost some clients, but they also demonstrated how their humility and commitment to honesty in coming clean about their mistakes - which everyone makes - and how they were committed to improving their service. Most of their clients were forgiving and understood, and stayed the course.
It's hard to apologize for something. Even harder when it's not your fault. But no one wants to listen to the blame game. They want to know what you are going to do about it. Yes, that's right: you, their leader - the one who's leading the charge to success. You will demonstrate your trustworthiness. You will demonstrate your humility. You will demonstrate your vulnerability. All of these characteristics strengthen your relationship with your staff. Own it. Take care of it. Then move on.