When You Screw Up in HR, Memorize and Say These 4 Magic Phrases…


By Alan Collins

As HR pros, we all make mistakes.

Or say the wrong thing at the right time.

Or misjudge a situation from time to time.

But not everyone in our profession will confess to their screw ups…especially in high stress, corporate environments where others are watching and judging us every day.

However, I learned a very important lesson early in my career at Quaker Oats.

As a young HR director for a tiny division of the company, I reported to an amazing boss who relied heavily on my judgment and experience.

She had taken a chance and promoted me into the director role largely because of my relationships and knowledge of the organization.

But the job was a stretch for me and a bit over my head.


She knew it and I knew it. But she was willing to take a chance on me.

So, I didn’t want to let her down or make her regret her decision.

But on one occasion, I had a horrible lapse in common sense and fell short of her expectations.

I really screwed up a very complex employee theft investigation and termination case.

My crime was that I didn’t involve our legal department and I didn’t ask all the right questions. And as a result, I didn’t gather all the evidence we needed to reach a clear conclusion about the employee…who had been accused of theft twice before.

And my boss went ballistic!

She immediately called me on the carpet and asked me to explain my error in judgment.

My defenses reared up. My pride and my aggressive instincts all screamed: “Fight! Defend yourself. Think up a good excuse.”

Thankfully, in a moment of sanity I took a more sensible approach. Here’s what I said…

“I was wrong. I’m sorry. I know that I still have a lot to learn in this role. Please let me fix it.”

Apparently, this reply from a young, cocky HR professional was not what she expected.

I’ll never forget the expression on her face: surprise, confusion, acceptance, and something that may have been… admiration.


In that moment, I knew I’d done exactly the right thing.

And as a result, I pushed the re-start button and immediately got our legal team involved.

And together with them, we mapped a detailed strategy to dig deeper into this case.

It was very hard work. And I felt personally embarrassed initially going solo trying to be the hero.

When we finally completed a thorough investigation and presented our evidence to this employee — who had been a complete, utter jerk throughout the entire process — he broke down and confessed to all three thefts.

And we terminated him immediately.

That experience taught me something I’ve carried with me through the years…

A little honesty, humility and teamwork goes a long way in life and in HR.

It enriches relationships, prevents unnecessary confrontation, saves time, and builds trust.

This situation could have destroyed my HR career.  Instead, admitting I was wrong helped me earn the trust of a powerful and successful HR executive and opened the door to further career opportunities for me down the road.

The lesson: The next time your defenses are up you may find instant relief in one or more of these surprisingly effective, almost magic simple statements.

Give them a try, the only thing you have to lose is a little ego!

Here they are:

1.  ”I’m sorry.”

A short and sweet apology can diffuse a tough situation and lower the resistance and anger in the room.

You’ll find that the conversation will become less stressful.

And a solution to your problem or challenge is more likely to surface.

2.  ”I was wrong.”

Fessing up to your mistake is cleansing and takes a weight off your shoulders.

So if you’re wrong, resist the urge to defend yourself or make up a string of excuses.

Instead, just admit you’ve erred and correct it.

It’s that simple!

3.  ”I need some help.”

Go ahead and say these four words….no matter how hard they are to verbalize.

Even if you’re a workaholic and master of your HR domain, accept the fact that you can’t do it all by yourself.

Truly great HR pros surround themselves with and utilize colleagues who can guide and help them.

So reach out to your army of supporters and save yourself a lot of headaches, frustration and time.

4.  ”I don’t know.”

The true expert in any field will tell you is that no one is expected to have all the answers.

So don’t think you need to know it all.

Your CEO doesn’t, so why should you.

Let’s face it, if we knew everything, our careers would be boring!

Use this situation as an opportunity learn and grow.

So these are four magic phrases.

However, before you use ANY of these phrases there is one thing you should know.  

If you’re screwing up constantly, these words lose their power.   You will merely be viewed as an  HR screw-up who is not ready for prime time and apologizes all the time.  And your words will be received by others with frustration, skepticism and intolerance.

Don’t let this happen.

These words are very powerful.  So use them wisely.

In fact, legendary leadership author John C. Maxwell put it best: “The wise leader is big enough to admit mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.”

Become known as that kind of wise leader in HR.

‘Nuff said.




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