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Context:

I made a mistake last week and sent the wrong data (including other manufacturers' data) to them due to a copy & paste error in Excel. Yes, the sensitive data shouldn't be sent using a copy&paste system in the first place. I didn't realise I'd made the mistake until the manufacturer emailed me the following day.

Thursday

So I made the mistake of not telling my boss as I didn't realise the consequences of the mistake nor was I aware of any procedure or system in place for a data breach. I had not been trained in this manner and this is my first role / first time this had happened. I recalled the email and the manufacturer said he and his colleagues would delete the email. It was a very important day of the month for me, so I was focused on completing the reports due that day - again overlooking the implications of it.

Monday

Following this, I received an email from a senior manager (my boss' boss) asking me to provide details regarding this breach - I was honest and told him what happened. I presumed senior management knew of the issue and were dealing with it.

I then had a call with that senior manager the same day to provide more details on it, where he reassured me that it's not going to mean anything for me and that it wouldn't be an issue - therefore I thought it was already dealt with and didn't consider telling my boss (who was on holiday this day).

Tuesday

My boss lights me up over the phone for not telling him of the issue, when I was surprised because I thought him and the senior management already knew about it - yes, it was a mistake not telling him, but he really went off on me.

He then asked me to write up the series of events in which things happened, which I did and then revoked my visit to the work business review (today) and is now checking any external report I submit.

Today

He is now asking me to provide a reason (over email) in writing why

  • I didn't tell him initially
  • I didn't tell his boss initially

It seems a bait to try and get me written evidence to be released from the company. I know I made a mistake in not saying anything and that is my fault, but I was overwhelmed in the day with other tasks, not trained in data security, unaware of the procedure in place in the event of a data breach and already thought it was being dealt with by the senior staff who contacted me and who I provided information to.

This is my first job. I'm 22 and am worried I'm going to lose my job over this mistake.

What should I reply to this email with / what should I do?

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    Your issue here, is not the mistake, it is not telling your boss. Follow the advice of Gregory and Joe.
    – Pete B.
    Mar 10 at 14:33
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    If it's any reassurance, I did something similar, and I'm sure lots of others have too. I had people asking me to provide an audit trail of how it happened - one guy especially had a real bee in his bonnet over it and was sending me email after email asking for minute detail. It was somewhat stressful but at the end of the day, everyone understood that it was an honest mistake, and nothing further came of it. Obviously I can't speak for your situation, but I'd say try to stay positive; it may not be all doom and gloom. As long as you're cooperative, people should be more understanding.
    – Touchdown
    Mar 10 at 14:35
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    I can't add anything to the excellent existing answers, but I will say: good luck, and try not to worry. Firing might still be a possibility, but they don't need to "bait" you into getting yourself fired if that's what they wanted, they could do that already based on what you've told us. The fact they haven't fired you already may suggest they're looking for a way to NOT have to fire you. Engage with them honestly and openly. Again, good luck. Mar 10 at 22:59
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    Which country/state is this? The laws are very different in different locations, from at-will employment where you can be fired on the spot to locations where it's almost impossible to get rid of an employee. And another question, what is your goal? Is it to keep your job or to keep the trust from your boss and senior management? Without knowing the answer to these questions I don't think it's possible to get to a good answer.
    – Polygorial
    Mar 11 at 8:02
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    Any update on this? We're all cheering for you.
    – LeLetter
    Mar 15 at 21:32

6 Answers 6

94

It's likely they already have enough "evidence" to fire you, if your actions warrant firing and they need evidence.

If there are data breach policies in place, and you violated them, it's unlikely you can claim ignorance of them if they were available to you.

Businesses generally don't just fire people for mistakes. That's not smart business.

They would fire people who are blasé about their mistakes, and look like they will keep making them. They may also fire people to appease others, though it's unclear who that is in this instance.

You're probably better off being honest and explaining the rationale for your behaviour. I personally would avoid saying that you're overwhelmed, unless the workload was highly unusual. If you seem like can't handle a regular degree of pressure, that may count against you.

Your boss is likely personally annoyed (rather than professionally annoyed) that he wasn't aware of the issue because it reflects poorly on him as a manager. It's unlikely that him knowing would have meant a better outcome for the business. So you should personally apologise to him for not letting him know.

Regardless of any potential policies, you should always keep your boss in the loop regarding serious issues.

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    To add: no boss likes to hear from their boss about how their subordinate has made a yet unheard of problem.
    – coll
    Mar 10 at 13:57
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    @coll you've hit the nail on the head! The boss is upset because he was blindsided by his manager asking for details and he didn't even know there was a problem. Now he's scrambling to come up with a remediation plan for this problem and a way to ensure that it doesn't happen in the future. If he'd known the day of/after, he could have been prepared when talking to his boss and things would have gone much smoother.
    – FreeMan
    Mar 10 at 19:37
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    A quote many Motorolans attribute to Bob Galvin: "Fire you? I just spent a million dollars training you!" Mar 10 at 20:31
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    If they were going to fire you for this they already would have.
    – RedSonja
    Mar 11 at 7:50
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    "No boss likes to hear from their boss about how their subordinate has made a yet unheard of problem" I express this more broadly as "Nobody wants a bad surprise, so if they have to hear about it, better to hear it from you first." Mar 11 at 17:01
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Back in the day, I worked for a newspaper. A coworker made a mistake that got into the newspaper and was seen by millions (major newspaper). He didn't lose his job.

You made several mistakes that could warrant a firing, but the determining factor is going to be that email.

Your boss is trying to do a post mortem and figure out whether or not to keep you, but you need to be 100% honest and detailed. They are not collecting evidence to fire you; they have plenty. They are collecting information on seeing if you are worth retaining.

Understand this from your boss's perspective: One of your reports screwed up and you went nearly a week without hearing about it, and most likely the FIRST question you get is "How did you not know about this?"

Fill out the report in excruciating detail, outlining what you did wrong, why it was wrong, and what you will do to see that it does not happen again.

Your report should go something along the lines of:

Dear Boss, I made a series of mistakes last week which involved client X. I misunderstood the seriousness of the initial mistake and attempted to correct it myself I now understand the seriousness. When manager contacted me, I went into detail, and again tried to remedy this.

I now understand the seriousness of my mistake and that I should have gone to you the moment the manufacturer contacted me and informed you, and kept you in the loop. The first mistake I made was in attempting to fix it myself, then not telling you or your boss until questions arose. I have no defense other than inexperience and initial poor judgement. In the future, I will be diligent to keep you informed and in the loop and to make myself more familiar with policies and procedures so that I can prevent this from ever happening again.

Sincerest apologies, Annontywgebwmewmn

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    I like everything about this answer except the example email, which to me reads too much like unconstructive grovelling. As you say yourself: "Fill out the report in excruciating detail, outlining what you did wrong, why it was wrong, and what you will do to see to it that it does not happen again." It's hard to give an example of such an email without knowing the details, and we don't know the details, so I suggest leaving out the example. Mar 10 at 22:56
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    @BittermanAndy The example was to set the tone, nothing more Mar 11 at 2:16
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    @BittermanAndy. Groveling of this sort can be useful, if it has all the necessary information to accompany it. Mar 11 at 2:35
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    I think management wants to see some honest grovelling.
    – RedSonja
    Mar 11 at 7:52
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    A million times this, "Doing X was wrong, I've learned that I should have done Y, and will do Y in the future", is the only thing that could save the OPs job. Red flags here are any attempt to deflect (I was super busy and made the mistake) or shift blame. Any doubling down or justification of their actions will be sudden death. The big problem isn't that the mistake was made, it's how the mistake was handled. Mar 11 at 8:58
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OP, it is possible that your firing is inevitable at this point. On that basis, do your best, but don't think this is the end of the world - it's not, and your whole life is still ahead of you.

You should write your email with as much sincerity as you can muster. No false/excessive humility, but at the same time put yourself in your boss's shoes. He not only has an ego (remember that) but needs to feel in control of his group to prevent problems like this. As such, he had a right to the information which was accidentally/unthinkingly withheld by you. Be sincerely humble about that - you definitely need to regain your boss's trust if you continue at the company.

With all that said, you are young, and looking at the big picture, it's fantastic that you've already had a job that entailed responsibility like this. You've learned some really valuable lessons the hard way and likely won't make a copy-paste mistake like this again. In your next job application if this comes up, a savvy employer will hopefully recognize that your learning in the school of hard knocks has made you a more careful worker. If/when you get to that point, be prepared for that conversation too - honest sincerity is very appealing.

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As others mentioned, your boss is likely annoyed that this reflects on him personally as well as yourself.

This will have no bearing on whether you get fired for it;

Rather, it's likely that this question is being asked to prevent it from happening again.

Something you'll learn later on, after almost any serious issue, all management at each level wants, is to know 'root cause' what caused this to happen, and what are you doing to prevent it from happening again.

If I found myself in your position i would write back, I had not realized I should report this issue to you seperately in addition to another senior management team member who had contacted me;

Due to my inexperience I had assumed the other person who reached out had communicated with the appropriate parties and would take lead;

I now understand I should personally verify everyone at each level is informed of the situation - I think in order to prevent this from happening again some emphasis may need to be placed on this point during onboarding / regarding handling security issues (or maybe just mistakes in general)

This is a common mistake (not properly communciating) among younger newer employees.

It's a bizarre thought to think, nobody communicates with each other , and that your boss would be caught off guard getting questioned by some other person. In reality you realize everyone's so busy that you really do have to ping each person directly, and often it's helpful to include in your message, who else (if senior above them or senior in other groups) is aware

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    +1 for "...to know 'root cause' what caused this to happen, and what are you doing to prevent it from happening again..." If there is something that should have been in employee orientation and wasn't, explain and volunteer to assist in improving the training content, for example a paragraph or video segment on customer data and intellectual property. New employees in their first jobs will usually not appreciate the seriousness of these issues while for more experienced folks it's hard to even imagine someone not knowing already.
    – uhoh
    Mar 12 at 5:29
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As a manager and someone who's reported to managers (as most of us have). Rule zero is "never let your boss be surprised." Especially never let them be surprised by learning about something one of their direct reports did from their boss. That's a big faux pas.

Given the situation you're in...just explain what happened as you did here, apologize profusely and explain that you now understand the importance of keeping him informed and you won't let it happen again. The real problem here isn't that you made a mistake, it's that you hid the mistake from your boss and he heard about from his boss. I would absolutely not ever say the phrase "I was not trained in data security." That sounds like an excuse and blaming your manager at the same time. You're only way out is to own this completely and make it clear that you learned from it.

We were all young and inexperienced once, if you're earnest and not defensive then it will probably blow over with a little getting lit up.

Usually when you make a mistake the first thing you should do is notify your boss no matter what. Tell them what happened and what you think the impact will be. Then follow up with why it happened, how you think it can be fixed and how either your work process or the business's processes can be changed to prevent it from happening again.

Managers are people and understand our direct reports make mistakes. We aren't going to fire you for a mistake as long as you let us know about and don't cover it up. We need to know what happened so we can mitigate any damage/liability and "manage up" to higher levels of management as needed. The worst thing you can do is put us in a position of being surprised and unprepared.

We're also largely concerned with processes and process improvement so if we can identify what happened and how then we can tweak the business processes so that the same mistake is less likely to happen in the future.

tl;dr:

  • Don't cover up mistakes. Tell your manager immediately.
  • Apologize for not telling him and having his boss catch him off guard so that it looks like he doesn't know what his team is doing.
  • Tell him how & why the mistake happened.
  • Tell him what you think the potential consequences are from the mistake.
  • Offer him some suggestions on how it can be avoided in the future. (This can be as simple as "I'll be more careful" or as complex as recommending a process improvement be implemented)
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I've made a huge mistake like this before. Heck, my manager had me actually calculate how much money I cost the business per minute and in total (well into the 6 figures, and that was only because it was quickly resolved). What will save you, if you can be saved, is being accountable and showing understanding. If you take the blame unconditionally, and you display that you fully understand everything you did wrong as well as the correct thing to do in the future, it's often worthwhile keeping a known quantity over training an unknown.

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