Survive a Work Scandal Without Permanent Damage

Mar 20, 2012
5 Min Read

While writing my recent book Blind Spots, I had the opportunity to meet Patrick Rodgers.  Patrick was a lawyer who had been a notable member of his community since he was young, participating in the Kiwanis Club and his local Chamber of Commerce.  But one year, when Patrick’s brothers both passed away from cancer, Patrick neglected some important client paperwork and was disbarred.

It took him four hard years to regain his credibility and return to public service.  Patrick can’t change what happened in the past, but he now strives to remember his mistakes and incorporate the values of honesty and trustworthiness into his job as a mediator every day.  At the end of the day, Patrick is a survivor.

It’s Not the End of the World

At some point in your career, you may find yourself embroiled in a scandal.  This is obviously not a great thing to have happen, but if it does, all is not lost.  Patrick isn’t the only one who has managed to put scandal behind him.  There are countless examples in popular culture including Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, and more professional sports and entertainment figures than I have room to name here.

Coping Productively

When you’re in the midst of a career-related scandal, the tendency might be to deny any wrongdoing and to feel anger at the person or people who exposed you.  However, there are more productive ways to emerge from the ashes sooner rather than later.  In their book, Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound after Career Disasters, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward offer these tips:

  • Fight not flight:  Face up to the reality of the situation.  There are battles to restore your reputation and battles for revenge.  Engage in the former and avoid the latter.
  • Recruit others into battle: Take responsibility for innocent colleagues who were affected by your downfall.
  • Rebuild heroic stature: Provide a rational explanation of any injustice and express genuine contrition for any mistakes.
  • Prove your heroic mettle: Regain trust by demonstrating that the setback has not destroyed your professional expertise.
  • Discover a new heroic mission: Don’t define yourself by your past success or failure.  Move on and show a new leadership vision.

Take Your Mind off the Incident

It’s also a good idea to focus on the areas of your life that haven’t been affected by the scandal – for example your hobbies or community involvement.  As you strive to rebuild your career, continue to network inside and outside your organization, and take on new projects that will restore your confidence.

Learn from Your Mistakes

And finally, as Patrick demonstrated, it’s important to take stock of what went wrong and how you can prevent a similar outcome next time.  Assessing the situation honestly and talking about your insights with close friends and family will put the scandal in its proper context and allow you to start anew without regret or lasting implications.

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