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 stressful situations where the stakes are high.

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 roll the dice and bet 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 absolutely ballistic!

She immediately called me on the carpet and demanded that I 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, but they were terrific. And I felt personally embarrassed by my initial attempts to do this all myself…trying to be the hero.

In any event…

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.

He had been stealing us blind!

And, so we terminated his butt 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…four magic phrases:

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 utter 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, but I’ll find out and get back to you.”

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

But you ARE expected to know where to FIND the answers.

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

Your CEO doesn’t, so why should you.

*   *   *

In fact…

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

Mistakes are your opportunity to learn and grow.

So don’t hesitate — use these four magic phrases when you screw up.

However, with that said, let me give you a CAUTION. 

You are human.  You will make mistakes.

But, if you’re making THE SAME mistakes all the time, these magic words lose their power.  You will merely be viewed as a weak  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 leader in HR.

And you’ll go far.

‘Nuff said.


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Want more ideas for avoiding screw ups and moving your HR career forward, then check out:  WINNING BIG IN HR: 100+ Powerful Strategies For Accomplishing Great Results Faster & Getting Your Clients To Rave About You As A Human Resources Professional!   For more detailed information about this book, go HERE.


…Or if you’re a new HR leader who wants to avoid the painful  leadership screw-ups that stand in the way of your success, then check out:  THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS: How To Start Strong, Hit The Ground Running & ACHIEVE SUCCESS FASTER As A New Human Resources Manager, Director and VP.  You can get more details HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals including WINNING BIG IN HR and THE NEW HR LEADER’S FIRST 100 DAYS. He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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61 Responses to “When You Screw Up in HR, Memorize and Say These 4 Magic Phrases…”

  1. Necole Duria Says:

    Very well said…Thank you for sharing.

  2. Beatrix Says:

    Thanks Allan for this great contribution. These four phrases are powerful because they bring a human face on how we approach our professional pitfalls underscoring integrity and humility.

  3. Julia Huang Says:

    Alan, Thank you for your sharing. This is helpful for everyone, no matter junior or senior. I enjoy this article so much that I will share it with colleagues and friends, with compliments.
    Julia Huang, General Manager
    Alpha Management Consulting Inc.
    Taipei, Taiwan

  4. Prabhakar Guduru Reddy Says:

    Dear Alan!
    Really it gave me timely help in ond of the incident with my ceo and resolved in such way that the whole Mgt appreciated.
    Thanks and plz let us know more n more tips like these.

    SS Health Care PvtLtd.
    Hyderabad .TS. India

  5. Sara Gould Says:

    An excellent article.
    As part of a team in a company, we all need to learn to say: Thank you, I´m sorry, I was wrong, no matter what position you’re in. This is one of the more simple but also effective way of recognition to people effort on doing their best to or what they really know to do effectively for the company to achieve its goals.

  6. Muhammad Tahir Says:

    Thank you Alan.

  7. Jan Maharaj-Sookdeo Says:

    Hi Alan,

    Excellent advice. I loved it.

    There is hope and encouragement everywhere. Despite the fact that the organisation I work at is on the verge of closing down, I read your article and it was a delight to consume and I say “Thank You” for it.

    Have a wonderful day.


  8. Charles T Zindoga Says:

    Alan this is great read and so helpful!My experience is sometimes people find it hard owning up to their mistakes if they don’t trust the environment will allow them to learn and grow from their mistakes.

  9. serkani Says:

    hello Sir
    Good day, thank you for your email.

  10. TSK. Raman Says:

    Very pertinent reminder indeed Allan. Grew up learning to say, Please, when we wanted something. Thank You when we received something including a favour and we were spontaneous with Sorry when we went wrong. This practice continued when we got to work. We had to go through the grind, admit when we faltered or made mistakes, never falsified to escape. Admitted when we couldn’t and asked how we could. This now from you isn’t just a reminder but s ready reckoner for the young growing up pros. Thanks.

  11. Diana Says:

    Precious advice, Alan. Thank you, again! It efectively applies to any position, besides HR pros, and, is worthy being practised constantly at any level of professional age. Mistakes are part of the learning process, and, learning process has no arrival door.