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When to Take the Blame at Work

When to Take the Blame at Work
Illustration by Andrew Joyner

The first paycheck I earned as a writer came from a freelance job I briefly held at a small newspaper when I was still in college. I covered groundbreaking stories with such headlines as ”Deep-Fried Candy Bars: A County Fair Favorite,” “Underage Drinking Popular on Campus,” and “Local Man Makes Sculptures out of Trash.” I was young and inexperienced, and no one had ever explained the concept of copyediting to me. So when an editor told me she’d changed the term “rain boots” to “galoshes” in a story I’d written about springtime fashion trends, I didn’t check the final version before it went to print. When I saw it in the paper, I was horrified to discover the article appeared as a musing on the colorful, polka-dotted goulash—the Hungarian stew.

It was my first official error and it wasn’t even my fault. But indirectly it was. I apologized to my editor for not checking the final version; she apologized to me for making me write about stew; and our copy editor would have apologized to both of us, except the newspaper was so small it didn’t have one—which is probably how an article about the patterned rubber goulash made it into print. I’m still so embarrassed by this mix-up that I’ve never told the story to anyone until now. But I’m sharing it with you, because while writing this paragraph makes me want to hide under the covers, it’s also a good example of how to take the blame at work. I may not have known how to proof a story back then, but according to Ben Dattner, organizational psychologist and author of The Blame Game, I did the right thing when it came to office diplomacy. I apologized.