You can keep your job – and dignity – after even the most boneheaded move

This is sort of embarrassing to write, so don’t interrupt me. It was about 10 years ago. I was having some kind of nervous breakdown at the time. Not for business reasons, mind you – I didn’t care a lot about what was happening at the office then. I was in the midst of a messed-up divorce, and my behaviour had become a bit screwy. In retrospect, I’m surprised I wasn’t thrown out the 35th-floor window. But I digress.Somehow I got it in my head that after so many years of employment at the company, I deserved to start taking a company car around town. I looked around and noticed that some guys, guys who were just a notch or two above me, had company cars. Why shouldn’t I travel in comfort like the big honchos? So I started doing that. What I didn’t factor in was that (1) everybody but the CEO-level dudes were dutifully filling out vouchers and accounting for the business rationale of their behaviour and (2) I’m not the frickin’ CEO.

At any rate, (like all aberrant behaviour from drinking and gambling to chasing women and collecting stamps or fountain pens), this activity grew bigger and bigger as I came to like it more and more. Pretty soon I was cruising around in an Audi back and forth to lunch, doctor’s appointments, restaurants, and the occasional concert, rugby match, or big night out with the guys. Not only did I take this expensive piece of machinery everywhere, but I also – and this was what got me busted with extreme unction – had them chauffeured for me while I was carving up cow flesh, sucking down single malt, bending over and coughing, or whatever.

In one three-month period, I racked up about R15 000 in associated charges. That’s when Control sent up a flare. And so it was that one terrible day I was visited by Cathy, the number two honcho in Finance. “Hey, Gil,” she said. “I have something weird here.” And she rolled out an expense spreadsheet, which revealed the crazy stuff I had been doing. “All these cars,” said my friend, for she truly was my friend at precisely the time and place I needed one. She peered at me as if I were some odd species of monkey in a zoo. “And you had them… wait for you? Gil, you never have a flipping chauffeur!” Over the next few weeks I had several meetings with Edwards, the number three guy in Finance, who was not my friend. I won’t go into the way he looked at me. In the end, I had to write a check for almost the full amount. It was a lot of money. I couldn’t really afford it. But it was a small price to pay to ditch trouble, escape Edwards, and keep my life. The way I dodged the possible dire implications of my stupidity may help you. Because one day you, like me, will blow it. Yes, you will. You will fall in love with your lustrous assistant who after one torrid month will begin to look at the whole thing askance. You will blab confidential, proprietary information to the wrong person. You will insult Mr Big Wig. Whatever the misdeed, it will be a first class, unadulterated, blatant, irrevocable screw-up – and you will be the author of it. And you will live. Because you will know how to handle it. You will, in short, be prepared. Why? Because you read Men’s Health. Plus, you will have rock-hard abs. Don’t thank us. That’s what we’re here for. Let’s take it a step at a time.

1. Survey the damage

Before you think of solutions, figure out how bad this thing is and how ugly it might become. First, ask yourself if what you did is a fireable offense. If the company already wanted to fire you, they now have an excuse. If they didn’t, they’ll probably help you figure it out. Did you engage in a pattern of foolishness and error over time, or was it just one stupid indiscretion? If it’s the latter, you may be okay. Not long ago one of our favourite junior guys got a bit hammered at lunch and leaked some delicate intel to an attractive and predatory young intern who, even though the information was “off the record,” chose to tattletale to her boss to score some extra points. The guy was devastated by his complete mess-up. It seemed churlish to punish him any more than he was already punishing himself. Also, how senior are you? Big guys can get away with more and worse sins than little ones can. Who will be judging you? Do they like you? If they don’t, you need to keep this in mind along the way. (See Step 3.) Who do you need to tell about this before they find out about it the wrong way? There are all kinds of ways to disclose an indiscretion. You want control of that process. Keep the circle as small as you can.

2. Fess up

I’m a big believer in this step. You can say, “Wow, I never knew I was breaking Rule #246!” That’s fine, but do not fight for your honour or make excuses. The full-on, no-excuses-barred confession is still the best and most disarming step.

3. Dig in

With any luck, your colleagues like you. In my case, the key managers decided they would torture me for a while but then let me off the hook after I’d made appropriate restitution. They were my allies, even though they were also my judge and jury. You want people like that. If necessary, go to your boss and beg for support. In the end, your boss is the only one who can fire you. But even if you believe that a person is your ally, be careful. A few years ago this guy worked for me who was a holdover from the prior administration, and he hated my guts. He was pretty vocal about it. One day, he gave me the screw-up I had been waiting for. He told an executive who he believed was his ally, “My boss doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” This “ally” then came down to my office, closed the door, and said, “You gotta get rid of Jono. He’s working against you.” My enemy’s ally had become my ally. Never forget that an ally is not a friend. This isn’t personal; it’s business.

4. Pay your penance

It’s going to hurt, but you are now actively looking for a way to set the books straight.
Payback should be full, open hearted, and as public as the company and your bosses need it to be. It may include a straight-up apology – up to and including a sniveling, weepy, snot-on-your-upper- lip mea culpa accompanied by a promise not to do it again – as well as money, if that’s part of the issue. Don’t whine about it either.

5. Close the case

At some point you need validation that the matter is closed. Unless you are properly and officially forgiven, you’ll have a black cloud above your head. Here’s how it’s supposed to go. You: Chris, I’ve sent back the beanie I improperly purchased and said I was sorry to Andile, Marianne, James, and the guy from the beanie store. We good now?
Chris: Yes, Gordon.
You: But I want to know personally that I’m okay with you, Chris. That’s important to me.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. We’re okay.
You: I love you, man.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Scram, you big ass.
Now bury this thing – deep – and don’t blow it again for at least 18 months. Got it?