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I cannot go into exact details due to privacy reasons, but essentially the records on a database that tracks our work imply that I made a very bad mistake - or that I am lying - but I am sure that I did neither.

The mistake was work-related involving some form of research and data entry; there is some data missing which I am sure I inserted (and had specifically double checked multiple times) but when checking now it is missing. Figuring out if there was a bug which caused this disappearance of data required a whole day of the tech guys supporting our team, but they found no bug.

The technical guys point the finger at me, my boss sends me a warning e-mail.

When technology incriminates you for something you didn't do, what's the best way to react professionally, and how to convince the boss that even if the computer says so, you are absolutely sure you didn't?

How to ensure that a technical issue you are not responsible for doesn't affect your performance evaluation?

UPDATE: Today I spoke extensively with a more senior IT guy at the company who initially mocked me in disbelief. He then spent less than a minute checking something (the other IT guys were just annoyed like "what a waste of time, we closed this case earlier") and found that there was some bug. Somehow, he was also able to repeat the same error and it was not caused by any of the user's actions.

I am now cleared, but I want to keep this question open for any other situation where people rely on technology to evaluate work/performance... but the technology wrongly makes someone look bad.

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    You could blame it on the Giant Ants… oh wait. – bjb568 Jun 10 '14 at 7:08
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    How are you sure you did not do this? – Kevin Jun 10 '14 at 7:41
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    @Fredrik is right - to get decent answers, you will need to specify more details around the data entry. Did you change the CEO's salary from $1m to $1, did you make a share trade that you should not have, did you add someone's SSN to something that went public? Is there a cost to the company associated with this error? – Mike Jun 10 '14 at 7:46
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    Hey Gigantic, and welcome to The Workplace. We really do need more details, otherwise there isn't really a practical way to answer. Right now you're saying that the evidence says you did it, but that you are sure you didn't, but we don't know what the system actually is, how it could be wrong, what the consequences are, or why your bosses are upset over it, and all of these would impact a good answer. Could you please edit your post to keep it confidential while still explaining more clearly what the issue was? Thanks in advance. – jmac Jun 10 '14 at 7:51
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    Following on from @Ajaxkevi comment, how did you double check that you HAD inserted data? Did you see the data within the system? – Mike Jun 10 '14 at 12:25
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This is a recurring problem when you combine human interaction with data processing.

In a nutshell: When a human has to perform some task that is recorded, processed, or otherwise mediated by a machine and a mistake is made, deference is almost always given to the machine even if there are compelling concerns about the proper function of the machine.

In this particular case, someone checked the logs of your system and concluded that the data was never entered. Humans don't have log files, you only have your word. It is natural to conclude that the mistake lies with you.

However, it could be that there is a glitch of some kind that made you believe the data was submitted when it was not and it did not record this interaction in the logs.

If you want to be even more cynical, it could be that the "tech guys" searching the logs only looked for completed transactions and not roll-backs or other anomalies. To some extent, a lack of completeness is understandable because if they find a problem and its "their fault", they're going to get a pile of extra work and some blame.

Whatever the case, you're on the losing side for this one. Take the hit. No one data-entry mistake is going to sink you, it is a pattern of mistakes that will cause real problems.

What you need to do is find ways to mitigate this kind of stuff from happening in the future. I work in manufacturing and also have to deal with a flaky system. Here's what I do for important stuff where I don't want to trust the system 100%:

  • Keep a log book (notebook), that's what these are for. Physical notebooks still exist and will for the foreseeable future. Log observations, serial numbers, critical actions, date-times, or whatever information is really important for you work.

  • If you notice an anomaly, don't disregard it, log it. Take a screenshot, print it, put it into the notebook and start a bug report (the "tech guys" do take bug reports, I hope).

  • Validate your data entry. There are lots of strategies for this. You should at least spot check your entries-- and use the log book as a guide. Run a report on what you just entered to verify it is all there. Whoever is responsible for the system should be able to customize a report that will conveniently allow validation. That report output can go into your notebook as well.

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    As a "tech guy" I would kill for a log book like the one mentioned. I can't tell you how often you someone tells someone else, who tells their boss, who tells me "something didn't work"... great... what, when, and where didn't work? The more details you can offer the techs the faster and more likely they are to be able to find/fix the problem – RualStorge Jun 10 '14 at 17:33
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    This is really the best answer as it acknowledges that the machine may be the problem even if people don't want to believe it. A log book would be great and as a developer the more detailed the repo steps the easier my job is. – Andy Jun 15 '14 at 15:52
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    An interesting example of this type of problem in a very serious context is ATM 'phantom withdrawals': theregister.co.uk/Print/2005/10/21/phantoms_and_rogues cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/Papers/wcf.pdf – A E Oct 23 '14 at 22:25
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Fact is, the tech staff found no bug, even after having investigated all day, so the burden of proof is on you. You claim that you made the data entry. What is the proof that you had actually made a data entry that was actually validated as a data entry? Because the data entry transaction check went up blank and I assume that the data entry transaction would have shown up in the logs if you had indeed made a valid data entry transaction. At this point,

either you made a data entry transaction that the system never validated and thus never logged as valid, complete with date and time stamp. I suggest that you reproduce the data entry procedure that you followed.

If the data entry procedure that you claim you followed results in a validated and time stamped, logged transaction, then you are in trouble because you just validated the data entry procedure that you claim you followed.

If the data entry procedure that you claim you followed results in no data entry, then you'd better make sure that your data entry procedure is correct and that you did not miss a step in your procedure somewhre.

You claim you checked several times but I have no idea just what you checked. Validate your checking procedure with the tech people. You want to make sure that your checking procedure is correct and complete.

or you made the data entry somewhere in the system, but the data is stored somewhere in the system, and in the wrong place.

The logs should show where the data that you entered is actually stored in the system.

Double check your data entry procedure with the tech people to make sure that you followed the correct data entry procedure. Double check the procedure that you followed with the tech people to make sure that that tour verification procedure is the correct one.

Frankly, at this point, you are not in the clear, you don't look good and I am not blaming your management for sending you a warning.

  • That the IT guys say there is no bug is irrelevant. Either they are lying or simply couldn't find one. At best you can say its unlikely, but to flat out say no is not honest. A mistake is also likely too, but the possibility of a bug cannot be ruled out. – Andy Jun 15 '14 at 15:47
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Edit:

This answer is now less valid since it was written when it appeared that the author was accused of doing something. Their later clarifications show that he's accused of not doing something - a somewhat different situation. But I'm leaving it in, since it may be useful for someone else finding this question and being in the position the question originally spoke of.

Original answer

There are basically three possibilities here.

  1. You did it, but you don't remember, because it was an honest mistake and you didn't notice it at the time. This does happen.

  2. You didn't do it, and somebody else did it using your computer and/or username.

  3. You didn't do it, and the logs showing that you did are mistaken. Even sysadmins do make mistakes when searching through logs.

Only in the last case are you completely in the clear - and this is the one that you are pretty much unable to prove, since you don't have access to the logs yourself. So you need to focus on damage mitigation based on the first two cases.

Here's my suggestion:

First, stop trying to convince your boss that you didn't do it. To him, that sounds as if you're trying to weasel out of taking responsibility. Instead, tell your boss that you have no recollection of doing the $THING. You don't think it's the kind of $THING you would do, and you both know that you've never done it before, but it's at least possible that you made a mistake without noticing. If so, he can rest assured that you will never do this again, because you feel very bad about the resulting problems and you never want to see this happen again. You love your work and want to do a good job at it, and you will be sure to double-check everything and be extra meticulous.

Essentially, you can use this to show that you are a person who will shape up and take responsibility for your work after a mistake, even if you don't even recall making that mistake.

Second, talk to your boss and/or the IT department about workstation and username/password security. Suggest that even if in this case the fault really was yours, everyone wants the logs and tracking systems to have the right information. Do people ever borrow one another's accounts? Do you ever leave your screen unlocked and logged in when you go on a break? If so, then both those practices should be discontinued now. As long as those things happen, there is no way of being sure that the logs are correct. Tell them that you want to use this incident as an opportunity to improve both your own work and the operations procedures at the company. Again, this is about taking responsibility, even for things that aren't your fault.

Third, accept that this may or may not affect your next evaluation. But if your boss is unable to in the long term see past one mistake in an otherwise clean record, look for another job.

  • While I agree with your answer it might be to late for the author. Depending on his statements and how they were worded it might be tough to reverse those statements. At this point it might be better not to change the story. Its unlikely his official records will be changed at this point anyways. What you would suggest would help in the future and repair the employee boss relationship. – Donald Jun 10 '14 at 11:56
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NOTE: It is pretty sad that most people answering here want to assume that the technology be failsafe and that the "burden of proof" lies with the human - and then go on to try justifying and explaining what might have gone wrong with the technology, rather than trying to help someone who was genuinely misled by technology somehow show that the blame lies with the technology. I guess this is just because most people here are IT folks, but it appears that most people in the workforce aren't. I am happy it worked out in the end, but here is my answer should anything like this happen again:

When you are wrongly accused of anything, it is first and foremost important to prove that you are absolutely confident and certain about your innocence, and that you take it seriously that someone is accusing you. In my experience, this at least shows the accusers that you stand your ground and won't let bad lies/gossip spread about you. Of course, don't ignore your other professional duties, but don't let the IT guys screw you over.

I would firstly have a private face to face meeting with your manager and explain to them in the best way possible that it is in your interest to work well and that you cannot accept being blamed for something you didn't do. This should at least provoke a shift in their attitude and make them aware that you are genuinely unhappy about this, and that you didn't just make up some story.

Show that you are stern and serious, and they will open up to you, at least try to help you and consider the option that you may actually be right.

Show weakness in character, and they may feel that you're just making things up.

Stand up for yourself!

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Discuss this with your boss. The key is how to prevent this from happening again. Are there reports you can run to verify the data? I'd hate for you to do something drastic like making a screen shot for each entry.

Weigh all this against the consequences. Does you boss trust you less or think you are less competent? Will your bonus or change of promotion be limited?

Of course your boss has to reprimand you in some way. Sending an email (depending on the content) doesn't seem like you are being punished too severely.

Maybe this system has a one in a million chance of missing a data entry. Nothing is perfect, but let's face it, there are more user errors than computer errors.

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Always try and escalate. Try talking to someone more senior, regardless of whether they are in IT or not, and someone with more authority will make them behave normal. Look around in the company until you find someone willing to step in and help you. There surely are people who will understand your situation and support you.

Don't despair - humans make mistakes, but machines make the mistakes programmed by their humans. There's always a chance that something can go wrong.

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