when a reliable employee starts making mistakes

A reader writes:

I have an employee who has been working in payroll and purchasing for 2 years with little to no incidents. However, lately there has been a constant stream of mistakes; one in particular required deleting the whole payroll and rekeying it by hand. It is like this employee went home one day and came back the next day and forgot all the knowledge they had obtained. I have this person work from their manuals in order to avoid further incidence. Any suggestions on what on earth is going on?

You can read my answer to this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. NJ Anon

    #1 I would be willing to bet this person is dealing with a great deal of stress most likely from outside the workplace (although you won’t know unless you ask). When you have something weighing heavily on your mind, you memory and focus go because no matter how hard you try, it’s there. Been there, felt that. I would gently ask but not a lot of detail unless they want to share. They need your support. Hopefully, it is temporary.

    1. SJ

      #1 – Yep – I’ve made more mistakes recently (minor ones) just because I’m so Over It at my toxic place of work and I’m desperate to leave, and apathy combined with the job search stress has affected my performance (again, in minor ways, but mistakes I didn’t make before). It’s not an excuse whatsoever, but I can feel myself not trying as hard as I used to as I worry about finding another job and despairing over my savings account. I’m really trying to remedy this because I don’t want my references (2 of whom are current bosses) to be “meh” about me if contacted for a reference check, when I’ve had over 2 years of consistently excellent work.

    2. Kristine

      This is happening to me currently. I’m in the middle of an unexpected and emotionally taxing family situation. I am trying my very hardest to keep it from impacting my work, but I still find myself losing focus or needing to leave my desk to collect myself privately. Unfortunately I don’t have the relationship with anyone at my workplace to let them know what’s going on, so I’m going to keep trying harder.

      1. Jack the treacle eater

        There’s a case rekated below of early onset dementia. I’ve known of a case where someone I knew started making minor errors at work and was subsequently diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Inc won’t let me read Alison’s advice, but support and concern seem appropriate…

        1. Manders

          There are so many different medical issues that can cause problems with attention and memory that I don’t think OP could even list them all for her employee–all she can really do is point out the problem and possibly gently suggest that they see a professional about it.

          Burnout would be my first guess too, but there are just too many medical conditions that can mimic burnout.

          1. INTP

            Yeah, there are sooooo many potential health problems that can cause memory and cognitive problems. Besides incredibly serious things like brain tumors and dementia and the well-known culprits like anxiety and depression, pretty much every autoimmune disease has brain fog as a possible symptom, thyroid problems can cause memory loss, nutrient deficiencies can affect cognitive functioning, medication for many illnesses can cause fatigue and brain fog, etc.

            I do think that depending on the severity of the work problems, it could be appropriate for the employer to suggest FMLA, reduced work hours, short-term disability, etc. That should occur after the employee has already disclosed that something is going on, of course, not in the initial conversation about the problems.

            1. Stranger than fiction

              Heck, even a UTI can cause brain fog, and some people don’t have all the symptoms or they ignore it til it gets really bad.

          2. Ama

            Yeah, I had been feeling completely fried and unable to concentrate at work for most of last fall, then over my Christmas vacation identified some major light pollution in my bedroom that was apparently causing me to sleep incredibly poorly (seriously, I had been sleeping for 12 hours every weekend and waking up feeling draggy and awful — as soon as we covered up or moved all the little indicator lights and put up a better window covering I was waking up on 7 hours’ sleep feeling like a real person).

            It was only after the insomnia got so bad that I couldn’t even sleep on vacation that we realized there was a larger issue at work than just work stress.

      2. Doriana Gray

        When I started making stupid mistakes in my last job, it was largely due to burnout. I’m being more diligent going forward with regards to taking vacations, even if it’s just laying around at home in my pajamas, and just trying not to care so much about my job (the latter is so hard).

  2. Anonymous Educator

    Two years is a fairly decent run to suddenly change. Yes, something is up, and Alison is (as usual) spot-on to just ask about it in a non-accusatory fashion. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”

  3. Mike C.

    Tapped Bumper – Modern bumpers are supposed to sustain around a 5mph hit without causing damage so if you truly tapped it at low speed it’s fine.

    1. SerfinUSA

      My partner just tapped a bumper yesterday and now the ‘victim’ is claiming injury after the fact. The funny part was when the insurance company said even her insurance company was side-eyeing the claim. Not that it saves us from getting dinged rate-wise.

    2. neverjaunty

      “Supposed to”. The last time I got rear-ended at super-low speed (a texting college student didn’t look up to see the light was red), it knocked the bumper slightly out of kilter, to the tune of over $1400 in repairs. Yes, modern bumpers are designed to absorb impact, so as to protect the people in the car. They’re not designed to be super-resilient to all damage, and absorbing that impact can screw up a lot of small parts that need replacement.

      That said, OP did the right thing and shouldn’t worry about it.

      1. manybellsdown

        This is almost exactly what happened to me a couple of months ago, except that the person who bumped was … a personal injury lawyer. Irony? At any rate, I’m glad I wasn’t the one that hit her!

    3. Newbie

      I’ve been on both sides of this – the bumper and the bumpee. Leaving a note with an explanation and contact information is exactly the right thing to do. Should the person choose not to contact you, they probably feel there either isn’t any damage or it’s minimal enough to not worry about fixing.

      1. Elizabeth West

        Agreed. They might not want to bother with it if it was only a scratch or nothing visible at all.

        I got tapped recently on the highway, when everybody in front of me suddenly slowed and the car behind me went *bonk*. We pulled over and there was no damage that I could see. So we rolled our eyes at the stupid traffic and went our separate ways.

        I swear, I need to get out of this city. I’ve been hit more here than anywhere I’ve ever lived, including badly enough to sustain $4000 worth of damage (lucky that guy had really good insurance). My poor little car. :(

    4. Artemesia

      The 5 mph rule used to be in effect but I don’t think it is anymore on newer cars. I have seen so many bumpers knocked off in parking lots that I doubt they withstand this. I had a Volvo for years that really did have good bumpers. They had a rubber strip and were on rails with shock absorbers. Our car now, which is a more expensive brand, does not have that resilience. We were rear ended not long ago and it cost about $2500 to repair.

  4. JMegan

    #1 depends so much on your relationship with your employee in general. You can’t be a tyrant in the day-to-day, then suddenly turn around and say “Is there anything going on that you’d like to tell me?” Even if you sound kind and concerned in that moment, your employee isn’t going to tell you anything about her personal life if she doesn’t already trust you.

    When this happened to me, it was because my marriage was falling apart. And at the same time, my boss was a clock-watcher, to the extent that if I wasn’t at my desk at 8:59:59 (for a non-customer facing position), she considered me late. Because of the nature of my commute, I couldn’t just start earlier and get there earlier, but I could reliably arrive by 9:10 or 9:15. I tried to talk to my boss about moving my start time so I wouldn’t be late, but she wouldn’t hear of it. 9:00 is 9:00, and 9:01 is late.

    So I was stressed out every day. Not just because of the state of my marriage, but because of my boss’ inflexibility on my start time, and the certainty that I would start every work day getting in trouble like a teenager out past curfew. And obviously, my work suffered because of all that. My boss did ask if there was anything going on that I wanted to tell her about, but my answer was a firm no. Yes, there’s lots going on, but no, nothing I want to tell you about, since you are the direct cause of a large part of my stress. I’ve already tried to talk to you about part of it, and you said no, so what makes you think I would open up about the rest of it?

    1. neverjaunty

      But in that situation, the alternative to explaining to the boss that there is a problem is disciplinary action. This isn’t a letter where the employee is making minor mistakes (like being 60 seconds late), but is making serious mistakes like screwing up an entire payroll. It’s not reasonable to expect the LW to simply assume there’s something private going on and to grin and bear the serious errors.

      1. JMegan

        Oh, I was making plenty of real mistakes as well. The problem was that I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about the stress in my personal life that might be causing them, when she was being so pissy with me about my start time. She didn’t trust me with something small, therefore I didn’t trust her with something big.

        The TL;DR is that for Alison’s advice to work, the OP has to have previously established a mutually respectful and trusting relationship with her employee. Which unfortunately is not terribly helpful as advice – either you already have that kind of a relationship with your employee, in which case you don’t need the advice; or you don’t, in which case it’s too late. It’s more useful as a general example of “this is why you need to have a good relationship with your employees” than as specifically applied to this situation.

        1. JMegan

          This has been bugging me, so I want to come back and clarify that it’s my *own* advice that is not useful, not Alison’s. My advice is, essentially, to go back in time and make sure you develop a good relationship with the employee from the beginning – that’s what I meant when I said it’s not helpful.

          I don’t imagine anyone is still reading this thread, but it’s still rattling around in my anxiety-brain, so I wanted to get it out there.

  5. AnonEMoose

    For OP 5, if you do end up in an environment with overhead flourescent lights, it might be worth looking into one or two of these would be an option: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/90306925/

    Positioned correctly, this might reduce the glare enough to help. Or not. But they’re not terrible expensive, so maybe worth a try if it’s a possibility. Some employers won’t allow it for various reasons, of course, but some might go for it. They’re actually somewhat popular where I work.

    1. Sibley

      Also, if you’re having terrible headaches from working on the computer or reading in general, you need a eye exam, and possibly a doctor’s visit. This isn’t normal – if it were, we wouldn’t be using those lights everywhere.

      1. Sprinkles

        I think it depends on the person. It’s not normal, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m ridiculously light-sensitive– it’s due to having a blonde fundus in my eyes whereas for most people, their fundus is more reddish or pink– mine is basically translucent. There’s not really anything that can be done. I wear sunglasses a lot, but there’s no surgery to correct the color of my fundus.

      2. Anonsie

        It depends on the person. My eyes are fine, but 30 seconds in a room with fluorescent lights and I’m nauseated and the whole room has gone blurry. That’s migraines for you.

    2. cataloger

      I love those IKEA leaves! :)

      I’m in a cubicle environment, and it was no trouble having the bulbs directly above my cube unscrewed/turned off.

      1. LQ

        I hate those leaves. They always manage to turn into a “Oh! Look you’re so tall you’re hitting your head on the leaf. Haha, isn’t that funny, I’ll bet you never noticed you were tall and isn’t it hilarious that you’re crouching to be a part of this conversation.” I hate those things so much.

    3. catsAreCool

      I found that wearing a hat with a wide brim helps. Some florescent lights give me headaches otherwise.

    4. EvaR

      I get migraines and I bought a pair of polarized, tinted lab goggles on Amazon for $6. They fit over my glasses and reduce glare but still allow me to see color. I don’t think they’d work in every office, but I wear them every day except during 1-1 meetings when I’m trying to allow the person to see my eyes so they feel all bond-y.

  6. Honks

    Another reason #2s boss might not have told her about the opening is that a lot of academic job listings , in my experience, are fake. At my job we posted them as a school requirement even though we already has someone in mind.

  7. ceiswyn

    With regard to #1, I’m willing to bet external stress as well. A while ago, I had the month from hell (I work full-time and study part-time; I was maxed out on stress with two study deadlines and a major work deadline, and then I had an unexpected bereavement). Even after I recovered from the immediate fallout, my work tanked because my short-term memory was shot to heck.

    Asking your employee to work from the manuals may or may not help as much as you hope. I tried to make lists of the things I needed to remember; but I couldn’t remember them for long enough to make the lists! However, if the external stressors are likely to be short-term (and you can certainly ask about that even if the employee doesn’t want to tell you what it is that’s up) you may get some improvement simply by being supportive. When stressed people know they’re making mistakes they get even more stressed and make even more mistakes, and that’s a cycle you can help to break.

  8. The Optimizer

    This happened with someone on my staff. I talked to them about the errors and simple spelling mistakes (there/their/they’re, among others) I had been noticing and it made them think about other things that had been going on. The result was an eventual diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s.

      1. The Optimizer

        The LOA took place about 2 months from our first conversation. The diagnosis took a couple of months more. Six months after the LOA, we all agreed she wasn’t going to be able to come back.

        1. A Non

          Oh man. Yeah, that’s definitely a worst-case scenario.

          (“That escalated quickly” is a meme, in case you didn’t recognize it. The joke is that the comment thread went from “probably outside stress” to worst case scenarios in a hurry.)

    1. Joan Callamezzo

      Yep. Best case scenario, it’s a temporary situational stress like a sick pet or trouble finding reliable childcare or they’re getting ready to sell a house. Worst case scenarios I’ve been through with various employees included (a) early-onset dementia and (b) a cancer recurrence.

  9. TootsNYC

    #2: Last year the boss said, “no full time positions will ever open up.”
    This position that the OP saw was expired. And since the OP was still there, it was never filled—no? I’m wondering when it was first posted and when it expired.
    Maybe that posting was an error. Maybe it’s automatic to do this when a contract w/a temp expires, and nobody checked with the boss first; or maybe there was a lack of communication between the boss and some other stakeholder.
    Or maybe the boss changed her mind, placed the ad, then changed it back again.

    Or, if it’s a position in a different department, maybe the boss didn’t know about it.

    1. Blossom

      I assumed it has been posted and expired recently. i.e. some time after the OP had had that conversation with her manager, but too late for her to apply for the job.

      1. fposte

        That’s what I was thinking, because we have trouble with postings staying up past fulfillment all the time. But TootsNYC has an interesting idea there, and I don’t think it would hurt to check if that was going to be reopened since it’s still up.

  10. Temperance

    I just returned from an unexpected medical leave, and am taking longer than I expected to get back into the swing of things. What I did was talk to my boss, and remind her that for an entire month, I had no idea what was happening at work, and let her know, candidly, that it might take me a bit to get caught back up. We have a two-person department, and randoms were helping out while I was incapacitated, so tracking down what they did or did not do is more or less half of my workload right now … in addition to the work that was saved for me, and the work that needs to get done.

  11. Migraine Jane

    #5 – I get terrible headaches from fluorescent lights and computer screens too! Get yourself a pair of computer gaming glasses (mine are from Gunnar Optiks but I’m sure there are others). They’re designed to reduce eye strain for people who spend a ridiculous amount of time at their computer (a yellow lens reduces glare while increasing contrast). I’ve had mine for a few years now and my headaches have reduced tremendously. Sure, at first, you’ll feel like a total weirdo wearing these strange (probably not very stylish) yellow glasses around your colleagues… but I’ll take that over a migraine any time.

  12. Re: #1

    Everyone who has mentioned stress is spot on – sometimes this odd drop in performance on tasks an employee was proficient at previously also happens when someone suffers from a brain injury/concussion, so even just checking to see if they’re doing okay in a gentle way might key them into that without being too invasive. Unfortunately, I’ve also known this kind of thing to be a symptom of undiagnosed brain tumors. Here’s to hoping it’s stress or a minor concussion.

  13. Socal Tech

    I would like to add on something about number 4. In a good company, no one inside the company will see the answer to the race question. It would be stripped by a program and put into an anonymous database. This should happen before HR sees the application.

    1. StellsBells

      Well, most systems don’t completely strip it from the application, but (usually) only the System Admin can see anything but the aggregate numbers. Also, eventually, that information will be fed to the HR team if/when that candidate is hired and on-boarded. That being said, recruiters and hiring managers should not be able to see that information on a per candidate basis. (and some of it can get murky if HR and Recruiting aren’t separate departments)

  14. irritable vowel

    I agree with Alison’s advice to LW #1 to check in with the employee who’s making mistakes, but I think it’s a bit of a leap for the LW to suggest they get a medical checkup. Statistically speaking, it’s far more likely that the employee is dealing with stress (divorce, ailing family member, financial problems, etc) than that they have a serious, undetected medical issue that would be causing the mistakes. (Note: this is not the same as that they have *some* illness and it’s stressing them out — in that case they know about the illness already and the illness itself is not the cause of the mistakes.) Instead of suggesting that the employee get a checkup, I’d advocate for suggesting that they talk with the EAP, if there is one, or asking how you, the LW, can help.

    1. Julia

      True; but a doctor could offer support like gentle sleep medication if the employee is so stressed they can’t sleep, or a referral to a therapist. (Here, insurance only pays for therapy if your doctor prescribes it.)Plus, it’s always good to rule things out, as stress can lead to bad eating habits which can cause deficiencies which can make things worse.

      1. Reverendish

        It may not always be a serious medical issue, but just a smaller concern that needs tweaking. My first boss was, thankfully, amazing and noticed a similar rapid change in my work. She didn’t so much explicitly say go to the doc, but just asked how I was doing and reminded me of support systems available thru work. Made me realize that my residency schedule (think rotating shifts, so crazy sleep schedule) was harder on my body than expected. Checked in with my doc, discovered my vitamin d was deficient. That one thing being low caused memory/brain fog, metabolic changes, mood swings, vision issues, and bone aching fatigue. A course of prescription vitamin d and boom, back to my awesome self. I would have never noticed this change if my boss hadn’t brought up her observations.

  15. Chameleon

    Alison, please delete this comment if it is totally inappropriate, but…

    Anyone else get a weird vibe from #3? The degree to which her husband seems to be entirely de-prioritizing what seems like a very important thing for her (job interview) combined with the fearful overreaction to a very simple and common mistake (the accident) is raising all sorts of red flags for the LW’s situation.

    LW, I don’t know your situation or if the thing with your husband is a one-time thing rather than a pattern of behavior, but know that the way he treated you is NOT OKAY. You deserve to have your interests and your career treated with respect by your partner. And most people understand that accidents happen and it’s no big deal (as the person you hit probably does, since they haven’t contacted you). Forgive yourself and let it go.

    1. Not So NewReader

      #3. Not enough there to convince me that hubby is neglectful. Sometimes crap happens and usually it’s on interview days.

    2. AnonToday

      I thought the writer of #3 seemed extra anxious about each detail, and most notably about the fender bender. Staying an hour and a half to see if someone showed up and then worrying about what else to do after writing a note seemed over the top to me. I’m glad Alison told them they did the right thing and they can let it go and move on. I wondered if the person might go to a doctor to get screened for anxiety.

    3. Sarahnova

      I did notice that the way Letter #3 is written suggests that the LW is either under intense stress right now, or struggling with anxiety. LW#3, it really sounds to me like you could use some support, either with your stressors or with managing anxiety or both.

    4. Shinsekai-Yori

      Anyone else get a weird vibe from #3? The degree to which her husband seems to be entirely de-prioritizing what seems like a very important thing for her (job interview) combined with the fearful overreaction to a very simple and common mistake (the accident) is raising all sorts of red flags for the LW’s situation.

      Yes, that’s what immediately jumped out to me as well. The LW described her husband suddenly leaving their son with her right before the interview as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. Then again, maybe it was a one-time thing and the LW simply thought that part of the story wasn’t relevant to the question.

  16. HeyNonnyNonny

    For #5, definitely be extra careful in how you bring this up! Migraines are a very real thing, but I’ve been in offices where asking for no fluorescent lights or natural light would definitely not. fly. I’d say use the interview process as a chance to get a read on their office space (are there even window/non fluorescent spaces available? are they reserved for higher-up employees?) and their culture (do they at all encourage or allow cube customization?)

    And while you’re going through your job search process, check out some other options (computer glasses, or an LED desk lamp) and see how well these can counteract bad lighting– because unfortunately, not all offices will be able to accommodate this type of request.

  17. StellsBells

    #4: Please, please, please fill those out. I mean, yes it is completely voluntary…and no, I can’t speak for every employer ever….BUT most Applicant Tracking Systems (or, at least, any worth paying money for, IMHO) strictly limit who has access to view the EEO information for candidates.

    I mean if you’re truly worried, then just select prefer not to answer – a large number of people do. But that creates a problem, as a data analyst, when I’m looking at applicant demographic information – example, I would often do analysis for our HR and Recruiting VPs for departments with little diversity to see if there was (a) a general lack of diversity in the applicant pool or (b) maybe there was something in the hiring process that caused it. This is really hard to figure out when 50-75% of your applicants “Prefer not to Answer”. And, as Alison said, some companies give preferential treatment to veterans, but they can’t do that if you didn’t declare it.

    Andy hey, if a company is going to discriminate you based on a protected class, then not declaring those things on the application isn’t going to stop them (because they’ll realize your gender, race, etc, once you come in for an interview).

    1. Observer

      And, they might even realize (or guess) from the information that you put in the application. There is a reason why some minorities “whiten” their resumes.

  18. Rebecca

    #1 – is your employee training a new person, trying to do their job, plus someone else’s job on top of it, and helping to cover for other employees who are out on medical leave? Has this person been telling you for months or years that they are overwhelmed, stressed, and their workload is too much? Have you listened to them? This could be me. I’m making mistakes, forgetting to do things, and every day is a stress fest. I’m losing sleep. My manager couldn’t care less, and says she won’t tell management we can’t do something, nor will she ask for help from other departments. Instead, she volunteers us to help them. Honestly, if I didn’t have bills to pay I’d walk out today and never turn back. I have told my manager what’s wrong, and she simply replies that everyone is overworked and stressed, and what do I want her to do about it? I suggested maybe hiring some people, getting a good clerical person to take off some of the burdens, no dice. I give up. Yes, I’m looking for another job!!

  19. A

    I met someone who had them same thing happen with their assistant. He found out that the person was going through a divorce.


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