"Oh, no! Seriously? What a mess!" This was the chorus at a neighborhood happy hour recently. One woman retold her prolonged management headache of the week (responsibly omitting all identifying details, of course). In short, her employee let things get a little out of hand with a gaggle of coworkers at an offsite meeting. Interestingly, this employee was no newbie who didn't know better but rather a seasoned, typically reliable and highly valued middle manager.

What happened? Exercising a level of judgment that only comes after closing down the bar, the group headed back to the hotel to wake up a "buddy" who had (prudently) gone to bed early. Not being there, it's hard to imagine how things went so awry, but they did. An adept security guard brought some calm to the corridor and escorted everyone safely to their rooms. The next day, there were some muffled giggles and groans at the lobby coffee station before heading back into day-long meetings and then flying home.

Back in the office after the meeting, the wandering late-night crew was more than a little surprised when news of the incident circulated around the office. What? Still mad days later, the awoken colleague made sure management was aware of the situation and that punitive action could be taken.

What the manager did next was expertly follow these five fix-it steps to get the entire team back on track:

  1. Before acting, take a moment to recall any similar events from the recent past involving this employee or others. Note any emerging patterns to help establish guideposts as you work through your response.
  2. Arrange a time to meet separately with the person raising the complaint or citing the issue (if there is one), with the person who made the mistake (or is being accused), and any other people with firsthand observations. Ideally, conduct these meetings within 24 hours of first hearing about a big mistake. If you do nothing else, get the facts first. Demonstrating compassion at this critical point in the process is critical– as highlighted in this article by Will Yackowicz. Avoiding a big leap to a conclusion can be difficult--especially when you're frustrated with an employee--but this step is critical to responsible leadership and to preserving all the options you'll want at your disposal later on. During these conversations, gather information on what actions each person would like to see taken.
  3. Based on the facts you gather, seek support from human resources and/or escalate the issue to your management, if needed. Following any existing company policy (or sound judgment here) will make sure that you're consistent and will have the senior support needed should the issue linger or grow.
  4. Work with the person who made the mistake to develop his or her "get well" plan. For mistakes with limited (or no) impact on other employees (such as flubbed presentations, writing or analytical oversights, or missed appointments), provide coaching to help the employee move forward and return to normal productivity. For mistakes with a larger ripple effect, consider inviting a facilitator to work through hurt feelings and support teambuilding exercises.
  5. Plan to check in periodically at time intervals appropriate to the gravity of the mistake and the get well plan. If you believe the person and team has effectively moved past the issue, there is no reason to keep bringing it up. However, if you notice lingering impacts on attitudes and productivity, it is your responsibility as a leader to continue to push toward a conclusion.

One seasoned senior manager offered this advice for recovering from something regrettable: "Let your actions going forward speak more than your words. I have found everyone has the ability to recover from an embarrassing situation. I think it is all about recognizing what happened, taking reasonable actions to remedy it, and then just moving on." Good advice. For more good advice, you can check out Amy Rees Anderson’s piece here.

In my experience, embarrassing events typically happen only one to two times a year. What about you? What has the trend been in your office or industry?