Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/5/2007 4:33:49 PM ET 2007-08-05T20:33:49

One of the worst feelings is when you get that first coveted job and within a few weeks or months, you screw up.

How do you overcome an early mistake? You can lie, blame someone else, quit in disgrace, or fess up and take your punishment like a grown-up.

I’ll share a story about a barely 22-year old aspiring public relations professional — we’ll call her Kathy to protect her identity and to not further doom her career. She was actually more of a personal assistant to her boss and had recently been asked by her manager to take on some publicity responsibilities just a few months into her employment.

She was excited with the vote of confidence and the chance to really get her feet wet in the world of PR.  She set out to do the best job she could getting press for her company.

That’s where I come in.

I was writing my career column and was looking for some companies to offer input on the topic I was addressing that week. Young, energetic Kathy sent me an e-mail about her firm, including very candid remarks about the workers and managers she worked with. It was refreshing to see such honesty, so I was happy to use the information in my story. I e-mailed asking if I could quote her and she messaged back: “Absolutely. Let me know if you need anything else. Any idea as to when it will be in print?”

She was ecstatic to know her company would be getting press on a major news Web site, but never checked with her boss about the comments she sent to me. (This I found out later.)

Early Monday morning when my column came out I got another e-mail with a different tone:

“Hello Eve, my name is (Kathy) and I just got into the office after being out of town for 2 weeks; the CEO just informed me about an article, and apparently someone in our office tapped into my e-mail which was left on my desk and made up all those things about our company.  This makes our business look really bad.  I'm not blaming you at all; we are holding a staff meeting to find out who is responsible for this. If there is any way you can remove the article sooner that would be most appreciated.”

As a journalist, an e-mail like this is probably one of the worst things you’ll ever receive. There is nothing worse than putting out bogus information.

I called Kathy immediately and she stuck by her story, even blaming the initial e-mails on the cleaning staff. Since we exchanged more than one e-mail, I told her, I thought it was odd that the cleaning staff would be hovering over her computer having an e-mail conversation with me. Her story didn’t seem to hold up, and I told her so.

Soon after I got off the phone with her this e-mail came:

“I wanted to write you an apology first and foremost. You must think I'm the craziest person on the planet right now, and that’s OK; you're more than entitled to. First off, I'm new in this position and recently started.”

Her boss, she wrote, “was not pleased with me personally because of my poor choice of words, and she felt that I could have done a better job of explaining our company. I panicked and thought that if I said someone broke into my e-mail — which actually happened once before — I wouldn't get fired. But I can't stand misrepresentation of the truth, and I’d rather be honest with you and hope for your sincere forgiveness. I am truly sorry for all the trouble I have caused you. Perhaps I should have asked to be quoted anonymously.

"Anyway, it takes a lot of courage to admit this to you and my boss, and I really hope that you can forgive me and look past it. I’m very stressed out and just want to sink into a hole right now.”

She also left a voice mail with similar information and attributing much of her transgression to being new and wanting to make a good impression on her boss.

Oh, lying. We do it all the time as a society, says David Smith, director of the New England Institute at the University of New England and author of “Why We Lie.” “Life couldn’t function without deception,” he explains.

We fudge the truth during job interviews and praise management even when we might not mean it. “Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it,” Smith adds. “Just imagine going through a day where everyone told the truth. It would be a nightmare scenario.”

That said, Smith believes there’s a difference between a competent and incompetent lie, and unfortunately, Kathy’s fib falls in the latter category because there were too many ways she could have been caught. “Some people just lie very badly,” he adds.

There’s a lot of pressure on young workers, especially during that first job they believe, or hope, will lead them down a successful career path, says Tim Ursiny, author of “The Coward’s Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight.”

But, he warns, lying impacts your confidence, especially early on in your career. “Once you cover something up it’s going to create a bit of insecurity. It’s called the imposter syndrome.”

It can also be damaging to your career if the lie is discovered. And then there’s your identity. “When you lie something happens that is known in psychology as cognitive dissonance. Our belief and our actions must match up,” he says. If they don’t that creates an identity tension. You begin to justify one lie after the other, potentially creating a pattern of integrity lapses.

Before you decide whether to lie or be straight up, Ursiny suggests you do a “pain/pleasure analysis.” Look at the positives and negatives of various actions — If I 'fess up, I will be embarrassed, maybe get fired. If I lie what will that mean to my psyche? How will it affect my career if I get caught?

The second technique he suggests is pretending a good friend of yours is in the room with you and he or she has the same problem. How would you advise that friend?

Ursiny’s motto: Be honest about your mistakes and don’t wallow in shame. It’s all about focusing on conviction. You need to make it clear to your boss or co-workers that you will make amends. “People like people with conviction,” he adds.

Kathy decided to go with conviction. She didn’t lose her job, and her boss has plans to train her further “in the ways of proper PR etiquette,” Kathy says. But she was stripped of the bulk of her PR duties, at least for now.

“It was worth it, being honest. I felt like a weight was lifted off me,” she added.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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