What Would Happen If You Mucked Up at the Office?

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My friend Simon Robinson, our esteemed South Asia bureau chief, sent me this story. He wrote:

What should you do when you make a mistake–a genuine mistake–that impacts your company in a minor (or major–read below!) way? I assume you should take the route my three-year-old does and ‘fess up with the line, “It was an accident!” Pretty hard to be angry with her when she’s so honest. Sounds as if the Alaska Department of Revenue handled this pretty well, and the fact that they didn’t blame anyone must have morale up there. But would that happen in the private sector?

Great question. Here’s the story, from the AP:

Perhaps you know that sinking feeling when a single keystroke accidentally destroys hours of work. Now imagine wiping out a disk drive containing information for an account worth $38 billion.

That’s what happened to a computer technician reformatting a disk drive at the Alaska Department of Revenue. While doing routine maintenance work, the technician accidentally deleted applicant information for an oil-funded account–one of Alaska residents’ biggest perks–and mistakenly reformatted the backup drive, as well.

There was still hope, until the department discovered its third line of defence, backup tapes, were unreadable.

Panic alights! Hysteria ensues! Blame abounds! …is what you’d think would happen. But no. Instead, the unit reportedly went into disaster mode, calling up seasonal staff and outside consultants to retrieve mountains of information. The only backup was apparently stored in 300-plus cardboard boxes.

Not even the big boss melted down:

Former Revenue Commissioner Bill Corbus said no one was ever blamed for the incident. “Everybody felt very bad about it and we all learned a lesson. There was no witch hunt,” Corbus said.

And here’s the kicker: thanks to the code-blue incident, the department now has a rock-solid backup procedure.

In trying to relate this to my job, I tried to imagine what would happen if I, say, somehow found and pressed the one button that would erase an entire issue of TIME magazine from the computer systems before it went to press. I think before anyone threatened me with anything, I would just die from the guilt. I’d have to kill myself. Not to make light of suicide. But really. I’d never get over it.

The lesson in this Alaskan debacle is that one employee can cause a whole lot of damage to an organization. But if the organization is healthy, cohesive and has the will, it can right almost any disaster.

Right, boss?