I've made a serious mistake at work. The only way I can explain it is to say that I did what my boss wanted me to do (which is what happened). My boss had told me several times, in various settings, to hire as many part-time assistants as I could. I told her there is a possibility I go over the budget. She said no, you won't. Hire as many people as you can, for as many hours as you can.
I suggested to her I should start warning applicants that I may run out of money. Then they may be asked to leave at a short notice. She said no, don't warn them. Keep hiring.
I did not ask for clarification. I did not ask if she meant it was OK for me to overspend. I just stopped worrying about budget and hired as many people as I could. I kept hiring as long as I could find meaningful work for them. I was doing it under a delusional assumption that my boss had her own mysterious reasons for having me spend a lot of money. I also thought it was not my place to ask a certain kind of questions.. You probably guessed what happened next. I grossly overspent, and now I am being blamed for it. Looks like I am about to lose the job.
I don't know what to say or do. Do you think any damage control is possible at the moment? How can I explain what happened without accusing my boss?
Dear Desperate ...
My, you have stepped in it, haven't you?
Caveats first: There's a good chance this situation isn't salvageable no matter what you do. It does sound like you've been set up.
My first question is whether you have any documentation. It doesn't help as much as you might think, but at least it gives you some leverage for your next step, which is to meet with your boss for an "Okay, now what do we do?" meeting. Your goal in this meeting is to make the problem "our" problem instead of just your problem. Your boss got you into this. By rights she should help you get out of it. You can't force her to, of course (although the documentation would help); you can try to persuade her.
My next question is what this was in response to. I presume it wasn't mindless hiring. If it was in response to an unexpected increase in revenue and all you (and your boss) were doing is trying to keep your department above the waterline, you're in a better situation than if it wasn't. Set up a problem-solving meeting with your boss and her boss. "Yes, we did go over budget, both in terms of expense and revenue. How would you have preferred that we handle it?"
Beyond that ... too much depends on the specifics of your situation to provide a lot of detailed assistance. As you develop your plans, keep on thought in the forefront of your mind in all conversations and correspondence: The tone you're trying to set is: "We have a situation. We need to work together to create a plan for dealing with the situation. Fault isn't the issue. Blame isn't the issue. Right now, how we got into this mess isn't the issue either - we can hold an after-action review once we've dealt with the immediate problem to figure that out, and how to prevent a recurrence."
If you focus on that agenda, and do your best to divert anything that heads in a different direction back onto that track, you at least have a chance.
At some point, there might actually be a lessons-learned or after-action review. When there is, keep the same problem-solving tone - the goal is understanding how it happened so the company can avoid a recurrence. In that context, by all means present the facts of the situation. Is this accusing your boss? That's a matter of semantics. It's a matter of making sure everyone knows the facts of the situation so they can make rational decisions about the future.
I certainly understand your wanting to be professional enough to not engage in a game of mutual finger pointing. That just makes you look bad.
What I don't understand is this: Why would you want to protect your boss when she's left you hanging in the wind by yourself?