I submitted a resume with the wrong dates on it. I'm a career counselor, my whole JOB is resumes, I look at hundreds of them, and am adept at picking out a misplaced period or a misaligned bullet point and the best word to start a sentence with, but I submitted a resume to a job I was really excited about with major errors on it. The difference on my incorrect resume dates was a whole year, which effectively misrepresented my level of experience for the position I applied for. Even worse, I caught the error in formal government paperwork for the new position after I was hired, necessitating an incredibly embarrassing email exchange with an entire team of people, including human resources, lawyers, and my new supervisor, to address the error.
I fixed the situation and moved on, but not without some emotional pain and suffering and a hit to the trust in my relationship with my new team, and it still makes me cringe. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here's your plan of action.
1. Breathe. The gut-sinking feeling of making a truly horrible mistake is awful, and floods your brain with gnarly chemicals. You might get that pounding heart and tunnel vision, or completely lose the ability to focus on or think about anything else. The best thing to do when you're in this chemical response is to get your brain to calm down. Take slow deep breaths, or get up from where you're sitting and take a walk. When this happened to me, I got up from the computer, went to the nearest coffee stand, got a cup of tea, and sipped while I contemplated what to do next. Do not write emails or leap into action when you're still in this hyper-responsive phase, you're in no position yet to think clearly! Take a moment and relax first.
2. Talk it over. Call someone you trust, a mentor, a friend, a colleague, and talk over the situation. An outside perspective can sometimes help you see the error in a different light. You may need advice, but you also may just need the opportunity to hear yourself work through what happened and how you feel. This processing with someone else can help determine the right path forward. I called my mom, who is an experienced manager and does tons of hiring, to explain what happened and ask for her perspective on how I should proceed. Friends provided emotional support for my embarrassment and anxiety about how it would play out, giving me the relief and renewed confidence to move forward.
3. Admit to your mistake. In a professional setting, it is almost always better to admit to a mistake than to try to hide it or ignore it. There's a threshold, very minor mistakes sometimes are best left unaddressed, if the overall impact is likely to be insignificant. But when you think that a mistake could have a ripple effect or be discovered by someone else, you'll be doing yourself a favor by calling it out. I wrote to my future boss, saying "I discovered an error that I need to bring to your attention. I am so sorry to have to let you know that...", and outlined what the mistake was, how it happened, and asked for a conversation to decide how to proceed. Be reasonable, not overly debasing but don't minimize it, either. How you handle owning up to a mistake is major evidence of your character, ethical orientation, and ability to communicate and build relationships with your colleagues.
4. Don't overcompensate. You made a mistake, that does not mean that you are a horrible person deserving of infinite flogging. Accept that what you've done was bad, admit to being embarrassed or angry at yourself if that's how you feel, and volunteer suggestions that can help move forward. Remind yourself and others of what the good things about the situation might be (remember, it could always be worse...), and the positive contributions you will bring to help remedy the situation.
5. Move on. The more mistakes you make the better you'll get at learning how to move forward from them, a critical life skill. Consider this part of your professional education. Learn your lessons from it, and then get back to doing awesome work.
We all make mistakes, but how you handle them is the best indicator of your value as a professional. Do what you need to do to process your own emotional and physical reaction to that feeling of having messed up, and then apply your awesome professionalism skills to bouncing back from the situation. You'll be stronger for it!