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How to Explain Work Mistakes Without a Cliche Excuse

Work Excuses

It’s Monday morning and you’ve missed the 8:30 calibration meeting.

Unfortunately, “the dog ate my homework” doesn’t fly after age five, but you need to save face. However, there’s a big difference between an explanation and an excuse—and figuring out the difference can be a career-changer. Some advice-givers recommend cramps as a go-to, but we’d like to think Ninjas are a bit more professional than that.

People know stuff happens—but your boss likely has a pretty legit BS meter, and there are better ways to offer an explanation for errors, lateness, or disorganization.

An explanation requires taking ownership of your shortcomings, whereas an excuse simply passes blame. Here are four of the worst excuses in the book, and how to avoid using them.

“I got stuck in traffic”

It may be your immediate instinct to blurt this out as your reason for showing up late. But first, think about what you’re truly saying when you blame the traffic. Organized professionals consider drive time when planning their morning rituals—this excuse just shows poor planning.

In reality, congestion is a daily occurrence for everyone, so your morning schedule should accommodate it. Unless there was a 15-car pile-up on the interstate, it’s likely that your co-workers still made it on time.

What to say instead: Rather than risk looking like a fool, try being honest. Yes, it’s risky, but explaining how you got behind can be effective. Your boss has surely experienced a power outage or lost set of car keys. The unexpected happens to even the best, so coming clean with what may seem like a minor annoyance could be more believable than the world’s oldest reason for everything.

Try: “I got a later start than normal this morning, so I plan to take a shorter break this afternoon to make up for lost time. I’ll still have X completed and sent over to you by 3pm.” Taking responsibility is always a better option than assigning blame.

“I was unable to get in touch with so and so”

Nope, this won’t work either. Think about it: Not only have you told your boss it hasn’t been done yet, but now you’ve cast your blame onto someone else. It’s tempting to want to save yourself in these scenarios, but maintaining relationships with your co-workers is also important. Using an excuse like this shows incompetence … and Gloria in shipping will definitely hear about how you threw her under the bus.

What to say instead: Maintaining constant communication with all parties throughout a project will make everyone’s job less stressful. It will also show you can handle any task that’s thrown at you.

When your boss wants to confirm the delivery date on a marketing banner, but you’re unsure of its status, try this alternative: “I processed the order a few days back and was told it would ship in 48 hours. I’ve reached out to Gloria for confirmation, and am awaiting a response.” This update demonstrates that you are keeping in contact with all necessary teams to complete the task, without imprisoning Gloria in the process.

“I don’t know how”

Asking for help is essential for progressing in your career. In fact, your previous resume and cover letter most likely advertised that you’re a fast learner capable of solving complex problems. Well, now’s your time to shine.

Engage your brain and start learning—YouTube tutorials are a beautiful and useful thing. Then, ask questions. If you’re genuinely unsure how to handle the situation, even after a preliminary internet search, asking a colleague for advice is perfectly acceptable—just make sure you do so before the deadline to show that you’re proactive about solving the problem.

What to say instead: Try “I’d love to take this task on for you, but can you recommend someone I can use as a resource for things that need clarification? I want to make sure I learn how to do everything properly.”

An experienced boss will understand that you are not all-knowing—they might be giving certain tasks to challenge you, so they’re expecting a learning curve. However, they also expect a proactive employee to go the extra mile. If you use the don’t-know-how excuse every time you’re challenged, you’ll jeopardize more than your reputation.

“I forgot”

Ah, yes, the Mack daddy of all horrible excuses. Yes, you’re busy. And yes, you’re overworked—so are we all. In fact, the average person gets about 121 emails a day. Yikes! So how about explaining why you forgot?

What to say instead: We can’t be perfect employees all the time, especially with a jam-packed to-do list. Stay on your boss’s good side by saying, “I ended up spending more time on X and X, and (task in question) completely slipped my mind. I’ve already set a calendar reminder to complete this by EOD, and I’ll make sure to be more on top of my deadlines.”

Remember that there’s a fine line between an excuse and an explanation. Next time you find yourself in the dog house at work, don’t panic. Consider using a response that includes more honesty than cliches—and a future plan of attack. You’ll feel better about yourself, and your boss won’t need to micromanage. That’s a win-win.

How do you avoid excuses in the office? Share your explanation wisdom in the comments!


  1. Great article! I would wholeheartedly agree that there is a HUGE difference between an excuse and an explanation.

    There is nothing quite like the heart-sickening moment you realize you’ve made a mistake! I believe it is important to be aware of the expectations and atmosphere of the office or work relationship. Some people or offices will react more severely than others. Even with more lax individuals and environments there comes a point where frequent mistakes are inexcusable. There seems to be an unspoken expectation sometimes that Office Professionals work miracles and never make mistakes! *gulp*

    Making mistakes if you are in a new position can be extremely frightening, but is excused to a certain degree with the unspoken rule that improvement is expected. Repeatedly making mistakes or blunders after your probationary period would be grounds for serious talks with your supervisor. These should be addressed with documentation, solid rationale, and a complete plan for preventing future reoccurrences!

    Thanks, OfficeNinjas, for continually providing excellent content for today’s Administrative Professionals!

    1. You made so many great points! You’re right, this topic can definitely lead into mistake-making and the pressure of expectations.

  2. Very useful
    This kind of responses can even improve the general ambience of the office!

    1. That’s a great point—test out using strong explanations for a week and let us know how it goes :)

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