When to Admit to a Screw Up

Is it always a good idea to admit your mistakes preemptively in business?

Recalls are the thing to do these days—the latest one is from Southwest Airlines, who now must double check the fuselages on all its planes after cracks were found in three of them. Toyota’s recall over a year ago started the recall craze. After its media explosion, everyone wanted to know what their own car brand wasn’t telling them about the potential rattles under their hoods.

I bought a Hyundai Sonata a year ago, not too long after the infamous Toyota recall. Since then, my car has been recalled at least twice. I took it in six months ago for an alleged glitch in the steering wheel. When they alerted me of the recall with a letter, an email and a recorded phone message, the presentation was very matter of fact. The tone of the message portrayed the recall as a positive thing. Hyundai framed it as a service. They shaped the recall as a message that the company cared about the safety of their customers first, that they weren’t like the sly Toyota trying to cover up their products’ defects.

But I have to say, getting to the dealership was a pain. I had to make an appointment, and leave early from work, then wait for at least an hour. Recently I was alerted to another recall on my car, but the issue sounded so benign that I’ve decided it’s not worth worrying about.

Admitting to mistakes, doing the honest thing, generally seems to me like the right thing to do in business, and in life for that matter. But what about scenarios where the customer isn’t endangered or adversely affected, a situation where they likely would never find out about the mistake? What if fessing up to a mistake caused more aggravation and even harm to others than would be caused by just keeping your mouth shut?

Question: Is it always best to admit to mistakes preemptively in business? Have you experienced moments when it was best just to shut up?

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9 thoughts on “When to Admit to a Screw Up

  1. Brian Adams

    Always – and fast, no matter the issue. Owning up to an error as soon as it is discovered will always pay dividends, long-term. We’ve occasionally made pricing and quantity errors (thanks, Mr. Software!) in both our and our customer’s favor. Immediate notification (with reasonable proof) has never resulted in an unhappy party. Covering up an error will only lead to further cover-ups and, eventually, getting caught. Hmmm…think this might cost you an account?

  2. Dave Bradley

    Our institutions of higher learning teach that one should not worry farther than the the bottom line this year. I am a high believer that those institutions of higher learning need to recall their defective products.

  3. Dave Dibble

    I don’t believe that recalls are suddenly fashionable. I turned wrenches in our families auto repair garage for 25 years. Automotive recalls and TSB’s (Technical Service Bulletins) were not rare nor were they daily occurrences. They just were.

    But we were not the subject of a hyper-aware news media looking for the next scare story to keep the populace on the edge of their seats. What’s that old editors saying, “If it bleeds, it leads!”

    To be sure, the Southwest problem is serious, but they are handling it exactly correctly. By grounding and inspecting their aircraft before the FAA emergency order, they took much of the wind out of the media sails. Their refunds and free tickets to the passengers of that ill fated flight are spot-on as well.

    As for our garage or the business I’m a part of now, if there is a problem we fix it as soon as we are aware of it. Judge a business by how they handle their mistakes as well as their initial quality.

  4. Don Rozino

    So you bought a piece of crap Hyundai!

    I will never again buy one of those automobiles. My first and only Sonata blew the engine at 3,500 miles, then the transmission started acting up, which I had to fight to get them to cover that cost. Then I had problems with the power antenna, power windows, power locks, sun roof, windshield washer pump, radio and 3 batteries in the 3 years that we had it. Not a single recall!

    Thankfully, some high school girl took her grandfathers ’78 Buick and rammed it, both front and back, putting it out of my misery! Only a minor dent to the volunteer firefighter license plate on the front bumper of the Buick! Next time buy American! Ford makes an excellent Taurus! The best car I ever owned!

  5. Larry A

    Don R,

    Um! The Ford Taurus is like 95 percent made outside of the U.S. What is American about that? The only Americans put to work on that car were the guys installing the bumpers, smog apparatus and the salesman at the showroom who actually sold you the car. However, the multi-millionaire execs at Ford would like to send their sincere thanks as you helped line their pockets with your purchase.

    Look before you buy folks! You’d be surprised at how many things have an American name on them, but provide almost no U.S. jobs.

    As for the auto recalls, it was a brilliant bit of exec decision on Toyota’s part to issue all those recalls. At a time when car sales were on their butt, Toyota managed to keep all of their auto dealerships busy installing original Toyota parts. Face it, when you take your car in for a recall, you’re very likely to purchase some other forms of maintenance while you’re there. Why waste the trip, right?

  6. Gus Madison

    Now Larry A…
    I think you should take a look at the NHTSA list of top US built models. In 2009, for instance, the Taurus was #1 on the list with 90% value of the parts made IN the USA and assembled in Chicago. Ford still continues to make the top scores on that list today, and the trend is going more that direction for US automakers. Let’s rejoice in that and be bullish for our country in turning from our past mistakes.

  7. Don Rozino

    Thanks for the help there Gus!

    My Taurus was a 2002 company car before my boss gave it to me with 107,000 miles on it 4 years later. I took care of it like it were my own and it took care of me.
    In fact, when I sold it, most of the interested buyers were Asians. You would think they would want a Hyundai if they were such great cars.


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