we’re not supposed to tell our manager about coworkers’ mistakes

A reader writes:

I have a coworker who makes a lot of mistakes that have the potential to affect our final product. It’s not just one mistake here or there; she routinely makes careless mistakes.

I had initially been bringing the mistakes to a manager’s attention, but at a recent meeting we were told to bring concerns about mistakes directly to our coworkers. This seems like a bad idea for two reasons: 1) I would essentially be critiquing the performance of a peer, and 2) management won’t know she is making mistakes.

What can I say to my boss to convince her that talking to people about mistakes is something that should be handled by management?

Hmmm, I’d want to get more context from your manager about exactly what this new directive means.

It’s not unreasonable to say “talk to your coworkers about issues first.” In many cases, a mistake just needs to be fixed and it doesn’t need to be escalated to a manager to handle. And it can be pretty annoying to have a coworker reporting it to your manager every time you make a small, easily-corrected mistake — and it can be annoying to be the manager keeps getting informed of minor things that they don’t need to be involved in.

Giving a coworker a heads-up about a mistake that you spot isn’t really critiquing their performance — it’s just part of working with colleagues. You’re all working cooperatively toward the same end (or at least you should be), and part of that is saying, “It looks like the numbers got transposed here” or “Hey, just a heads-up that the info on this web page is out of date.” A decent coworker won’t take that as you overstepping because it’s not.

Think of it this way: your goal is to get the mistake fixed, right? So it makes sense to take it to the person who can fix it, which is usually the person in charge of doing the work. If you don’t give them a chance to handle it themselves and instead take it over their head, it’s often going to come across as less about wanting the mistake fixed and more about wanting the mistake to be visible to someone else.

What managers do need to know about are (a) patterns of mistakes and (b) very serious mistakes. They need to know about patterns because they can indicate a performance issue, a need for closer supervision, and/or a need for more feedback or training. They need to know about very serious mistakes because part of their job is to be aware when something serious happens and all that entails (from ensuring it’s being handled correctly to handling any performance problems it reveals).

Because of all that, I wonder if the new directive really means “bring small mistakes to the attention of the person who can fix them,” rather than “never discuss serious issues about coworkers with your manager.” The first would be very reasonable; the second would be an enormous management error.

I’d actually be inclined to just assume it means the former and proceed accordingly, but if you’re unsure, just check with your manager. You could say, “I’m assuming that you still want to know if there’s a pattern of problems that we’ve been unable to get resolved by talking with the person directly, or if something is extremely serious, right?”

If you hear that no, they never want to hear anything about a coworker, then you have a weird management dictate on your hands. If they really want you managing your peers, well, that never works out well, and they’re just going to end up with a group of people who become intentionally blind to other people’s mistakes in order to avoid that impossible request.

If that’s the case, you could try saying, “Hmmm, I can see why it makes sense to point out an occasional error directly to someone. But as you know, I’ve been concerned about a pattern of pretty serious errors from Jane, and I don’t feel I have the standing or authority to address that sort of thing myself. I think that needs to come from a manager.”

If they are reasonable, that will work. If they are loons, it will not.

(But again, there’s a good chance that this is more about the minor, routine errors that are symptoms of being human.)

{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Snarkus Aurelius

    It’s one thing if Jane misspelled a vendor’s name.  It’s quite another if Jane has been producing sloppy work over a period of several months.  The former I wouldn’t want to know about; the latter I would because it’s a bigger picture.

    A handful of incidents vs. a pattern.

    Please keep in mind that good managers will understand that people make mistakes from time to time.  Careless mistakes too.  No one is perfect, and I frequently find typos and missing words in my own work.  And editing is one of my duties!  I’m sure if you reviewed my work through that lens, you could find a pattern of it, but that’s why I have others proofread my work and I have forgiving bosses.  Plus my writing is a tiny element of my work performance.

    Here’s an example from the other side.  A friend of mine/coworker and I started at the same time.  Expense reports and other financial forms were a pain to fill out.  We frequently screwed them up in those first six months.  After a trip, my friend was accidentally off by one column in a spreadsheet, which goofed the entire spreadsheet and totals.  Rather than correct her, the CPA went to my friend, told her it was wrong, and when my friend asked for the spreadsheet back, the CPA refused and said she was going “report” it to my friend’s boss.  Thankfully my friend’s boss’s response was, “So it was wrong?  Did Friend correct it?  No?  Can you get her to correct it then? I need to get that signed.”

    Reply
      1. Snarkus Aurelius

        She did after the Boss told her to because the Boss was so busy that she didn’t care about a goofed up spreadsheet. But Boss certainly cared when one of the interns screwed up on a daily basis. That did get addressed.

        That’s where I see a key difference.

        Reply
    1. designbot

      On the other hand, if the mistakes aren’t brought to Jane’s attention but rather escalated to her manager every time, has she really been given the opportunity to improve? I’m with the manager in this one, dial it back to the beginning and proceed with things in the proper order, and it may well get under control on it’s own. It is very likely that when presented with these errors Jane herself will see the frequency and take steps to improve. If after a bit of this Jane still has not improved, and if after reflection her mistakes are really more frequent than is normal for that sort of role, then go to the boss. But make that good faith effort.

      Reply
    2. ThatGirl

      Yeah, I’m an editor, my job is to find mistakes, and sometimes I make my own – and I would much rather the person who found them talk to me first rather than going straight to my boss. My boss is great but it would still feel like “tattling” at some point.

      But yes, if there’s something egregious, or long-term, a manager needs to know.

      Reply
      1. Noah

        I was wondering that too. Unless you have to turn it in on a floppy disk like we did in college MIS classes.

        Reply
      2. Engineer Girl

        Many travel expense reporting systems have a work flow. Once you hit “submit” you can’t edit it any more and it flows to the next person in line. They would have to use their work flow to send it back. If the CPA refuses to do it then the coworker can’t edit it.

        Reply
        1. Snarkus Aurelius

          Yep. This was the system. Plus the screwed up copy had the employee signature so it was the only copy available.

          Reply
  2. Bee Eye LL

    The only time I have ever been written up for poor performance was after being setup by a co-worker (somewhat of a supervisor) who pawned off a bunch of work on me at the last minute and set me up for a fail, then complained to our manager that I dropped the ball. It was his ball I dropped, though.

    Without over explaining, we had work orders that required us to respond within a certain amount of time and this co-worker had piled up too many at once that involved offsite work. When I got a work order to head to one client to do a couple of things, he was like “oh, can you do this and this and this while you are there?” I went in blind and wasn’t able to complete everything, then took the hit for it when the customer complained about the matter not being resolved while I was onsite.

    Reply
  3. L.

    OP doesn’t mention whether she’s ever tried address the matter directly with her coworker, though her letter suggests she hasn’t because she believes she would be “critiquing the performance of a peer.” The OP doesn’t mention that the colleague is difficult or vengeful, so I think talking things like this out in a direct but relaxed and professional tone with the colleague would be normal and reasonable, and you’d probably find some scripts on AAM for doing so. Then if the coworker continues to mess up in a way that affects you, go to the manager with details of your attempting to resolve it. Going to the manager with the coworker’s minor mistakes on a regular basis, without trying to resolve it on the peer level first, could make the OP look like 1) a tattletale or 2) someone who can’t handle even low-level peer conflict and must take everything to management.

    Reply
    1. designbot

      Or like someone who turns everything into a conflict, when it’s really just a part of the process.

      Reply
    2. Engineer Girl

      I would be angry if someone went to my manager without letting me know first about any mistakes. That’s just playing “gotcha”.
      Sure, go to my manager if I ignore you or if there is a continued pattern of mistakes AFTER I’ve been notified. But going to my manager first? You’re on my dirt list.

      Reply
        1. TL -

          Yup. At OldJob, I’d get talked to by a peer about something (that happened once) and then called into either boss or not-manager-manager’s office to talk about “the pattern of X.” Mysteriously, when I asked for further information/incidents, they could only tell me about the one…

          Reply
        2. Not So NewReader

          This. I have never seen this set up go well.

          The people that I dread working with the most are the people who cannot mention mistakes. Not only does it make the work much harder but it makes the work place a nightmare sometimes. One place I worked, I got spoken to because I told people to just tell me I made a mistake and I would fix it. We were talking about all the unnecessary drama in our department. Later,I was told that I was asking them to do my job for me. wth. She was the worst manager of my entire working life.

          Reply
      1. Anon Accountant

        Exactly. There should be good judgment used regarding what management should be told and when to just talk to the coworker.

        We had an employee who took every small mistake to management or what she perceives as a mistake. The problem is she was so focused on everyone else’s mistakes she wasn’t doing HER work and got fired.

        Reply
  4. A Non

    Is it different if it’s someone on a different team? My team works closely with another team, and while occasional mistakes aren’t noteworthy, there are a few people who make more frequent ones, which do cause problems.

    Reply
    1. OhNo

      I think it depends on how egregious the mistake is. If it’s small, or something that is easily corrected, then go to the person who made the mistake directly. If it’s huge, difficult to correct, will make your part of the project late, or is part of a larger pattern, then I think the manager might need to be looped in.

      At some point, the manager does need to know that their employees are screwing up the work of other teams, because that makes everybody on the team (manager included) look bad. In my experience, managers want to hear about things that are impacting their team’s reputation sooner rather than later.

      Reply
  5. addlady

    Truth be told, it sounds like your manager cannot be made more aware of your coworker’s mistakes than she already is, and now it’s just annoying.

    Reply
    1. AnotherHRPro

      As a manager, please do not waste my time telling me about every typo or small error that happens. Part of being a professional adult is having the ability to address these types of things directly with a co-worker. Now if there is a big issue, please let me know. But you should still tell your colleague first.

      Reply
  6. Sharon

    This is a pet peeve of mine. It doesn’t happen often, but on rare occasion a coworker has escalated something I could have easily fixed in two seconds up through the management chain. I hate that because all the managers assume that:

    a) the coworker talked to me and I refused to fix it so clearly I have a bad attitude
    b) it’s a repeated issue that the coworker has to deal with

    and they then send me a very sternly worded edict to fix it, along with a “talking to”.

    I’ve also had external customers do this: raise a one-time complaint about a minor issue directly to the CEO instead of to our customer support team. Whenever that happens it results in several days of stern meetings with unhappy executives to find the root cause of the obviously major organizational issue, when all that was needed was a routine and quick problem resolution.

    Reply
    1. Engineer Girl

      I’ve had this happen too. In the case of one individual it actually affected my performance review. He complained about me in my review (never taking to me about it EVER). My manager assumed it was an ongoing huge problem and I got dinged. When I chased it down I confronted complainer on it. He admitted (via email) it was a one time minor issue and NOT a performance problem.
      * I forwarded email to my manager. Now complainer looked like the liar he was.
      * I found out he also did it to three other senior female engineers. Management found out about it and noticed a pattern (multiple problems with high performing senior tech women). Not good for the guys reputation.
      In short, not handling minor issues with your coworker is going to make you look bad eventually.

      Reply
      1. DoDah

        I am really encouraged by the fact that, ” Management found out about it and noticed a pattern (multiple problems with high performing senior tech women).” Every ISV I’ve worked for would have happily and willfully ignored this.

        Reply
    2. Beancounter in Texas

      I had a micromanaging boss with which this happened too. I’d send invoices to clients, clients would contact owner, owner would come at me with an accusatory attitude, sighing “You made a mistake. Again.” No benefit of a doubt. Ever. No apology for accusing me of making the mistake when it wasn’t my fault either. Clients never contacted me with questions, even though I was clearly the one to resolve them. Owner would ask me questions, I’d answer her, she’d answer the client. Horribly inefficient and very demoralizing.

      Reply
  7. sam

    I would also say that it can be significantly more hostile/destructive to good working relationships with peers to escalate every single mistake to your/their boss rather than trying to resolve it with your co-workers first.

    You should escalate things that truly require management input (because they may affect the organization in a significant way, because the issues are frequent enough that it’s a larger cause for concern, or because you’ve tried and failed to resolve it on a one-to-one level).

    Reply
  8. Allison

    I agree with Alison, it’s fine to point out errors every now and then. “Hey Jane, I noticed a typo here” or “Fergus, there seems to be a formatting error on this page.” But when someone is constantly making mistakes, it’s reasonable to voice your concern to your manager.

    Reply
  9. Miri

    Alison, what would you like us to do when one of the auto-play ads is a bit racist? I went to report it in the form, but the form seems more about technical issues than content, so I wanted to check that was right.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Whoa — please use the “additional details” section in the form to report it, or email me if that’s easier. If you have a a screenshot or details about the ad/advertiser, that will help track it down.

      Reply
  10. Mike C.

    This is a rather interesting topic, given where I work, because we have parallel teams – the folks who make stuff and the folks who check stuff. So we already have a process built in where errors are brought to the attention of the person who caused them. Managers will find out that stuff has happened if it’s a large issue or lots of time is spent on it, but we tend to take the approach that unless we see otherwise we presume that we should be looking at our process over individuals.

    Sure, sometimes someone needs additional training or does something supremely stupid but this sort of approach ensures that problems are brought up, addressed and ultimately prevented from happening again.

    Reply
    1. Meg Murry

      Yes, same here. If you are catching Jane’s errors in a quality check *designed* to catch errors, well then the process is working. Now if everyone else at Jane’s level is submitting error free work while Jane is regularly submitting problematic products or it is taking you a lot longer to bounce things back to Jane and then have to QC them again, or if there is a risk that if Jane’s defective teapots gets past your department you’ll wind up with a recall or a ton of extra work later in the process – that’s something to bring up to management.

      Reply
  11. Meg Murry

    For the OP-
    One thing that I think makes a big difference in giving this kind of feedback is to depersonalize it whenever possible, and focus on critiquing the work product, not the person. For instance, even though these 2 statements are essentially true and say the same thing:
    1. “Meg, you misspelled the client’s name on the first page of the report – you forgot the second o in Chocolate”
    2. “There is a typo on the first page of the report – Chocolate is missing the second o”

    somehow when I get the first feedback I want to bristle or feel ashamed, because it is pointing out “hey! you screwed up!”. Whereas when I get the second feedback, I just say “oh, yup, there’s a typo. They happen. Let me fix that” and it feels like helpful feedback in order to make my work product better, not pointing out that I made a mistake.

    Obviously, if there is a pattern, you may need to personalize it (Jane, I noticed you tend to misspell Chocolate every time you issue a report to the customer) so that the person does start to notice it as “a mistake they often make and need to watch for”. Or if the person needs retraining, or if it’s an overall pattern like “it seems like you aren’t running spell check before you submit your reports”.

    I do think it’s worth bringing up to the manager if you notice Jane is making a mistake that is very common for lots of new hires – because if its systemic, you may need to address that with an improved training procedure or an extra quality control step. But again, that isn’t “Jane keeps screwing up!” that’s “The procedure is broken and here’s how we can fix it so mistakes happen less often or are caught right away.”

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      A great rule of thumb is to avoid the use of the word “you”. Granted this is not always possible, but it’s doable most of the time, especially if you concentrate on your opening sentences. It’s the opening sentences that really set the tone.

      Some people are so good at this they can make a one-liner to get the point across. For those who do not mind using humor, humor can be a powerful tool. I still remember some of the fabulous one-liners I have gotten for some of my mistakes. I had to hold my stomach I was laughing so hard. The speaker made their point.

      I supervised repetitive tasks at one point. It was really easy for the brain to fall asleep on the task while the worker kept working. I made up very bad poems as memory triggers for what was needed on the task. The poems were not off-color or anything it was just really stupid rhyming. The memory triggers worked, people remembered the bad poems and they stayed on course. For recurring errors, sometimes suggesting a memory trigger helps people to forget that you are “correcting” their work. It feels more like you are sharing a tip. And you are also giving a nod to the idea that it’s an easy/normal thing to forget or mess up.

      Reply
    2. JeJe

      Peer review is a common thing in my line of work, so I get some kind of feedback on most of my work, either positive, negative or neutral. I also give all types of feedback to my peers.

      Honestly, a lot of the advice given on how to dispense critical feedback back such as phrase it to avoid the word ‘you’ or sandwich negative feedback in positive feedback really irks me. I usually find it patronizing to be given feedback that way. I’m an adult, if you have critical feedback, just tell me.

      My advice is for giving critical feedback:
      1. Assume the other person is competent and the critical feedback you have to give is something they will understand as soon as you mention it to them. If that’s not the case, you can discuss it further.
      2. Give positive feedback often.
      3. BUT, don’t use positive feedback to offset negative feedback. This is transparent and the positive feedback means less because of it.
      4. Should go without saying but, don’t be a jerk and don’t be snarky. Finding someone else’s error is not an accomplishment. ( A surprising number of people who do peer reviews have an issue with this).
      5. Don’t bendover backwards trying to frame the typo, the error or whatever as something other than what it is. We all make them. It’s probably not a big deal.
      6. Whether you use the word ‘you’ (you made typo) or not is a personal choice. Just don’t go thorough verbal gymnastics to avoid it. Doing so could make a big deal out of something small.

      I understand my perspective is shaped by the amount of feedback that is given and received in my industry. Maybe when it’s received less often more care is warranted.

      Reply
      1. Meg Murry

        Oh, I agree that you should have to go through crazy gymnastics. And once you have established good rapport with a coworker and you both know that neither of you is giving feedback with malice, you don’t need to be so careful and you can say “Hey Jane, you made a couple typos, here’s your edits” – but with people you aren’t so familiar with, and especially over email where it’s easy to misinterpret tone, it’s better to be cautious.

        Reply
    3. The Rat-Catcher

      I don’t normally agree with the use of passive tense when active will do, but when critiquing work, I think it is a godsend. It somehow changes the entire tone of what is being said!

      Reply
      1. Petronella

        Yes, that is about the ONLY legit use for the passive voice!
        I also hate being informed that I must have “forgotten” to do something. Just tell me that something wasn’t done, don’t add an extra piece of accusation to it.

        Reply
    4. TootsNYC

      “One thing that I think makes a big difference in giving this kind of feedback is to depersonalize it whenever possible, and focus on critiquing the work product, not the person.”

      So powerful!

      I think it’s interesting that so many people have only one paradigm: parent/child, teacher/elementary student.

      They can’t approach a mistake in a collegial way; they can only approach it in a blaming way.

      Reply
  12. LQ

    I’m also going to bring up what jobs these are matter. If say your software developer is producing a tool that works beautifully but is riddled with spelling errors? That is likely not your software developer’s job, they might always make those mistakes, but that might be ok.

    If someone went to my boss every time I made a spelling error I’d think that they were a horrible time waster, someone who was looking for a way to get me in trouble with no clue how to do it, and that they didn’t understand my job at all.

    Reply
    1. LQ

      (There was someone who tried to do that, they got shut down really fast by my boss, their boss, my boss’s boss. Don’t be that person. Just say, “Hey, problem.” I’ll fix it, all will be well.)

      Reply
    2. designbot

      Right! It doesn’t matter for your software engineer, but if your graphic designer constantly made spelling errors, then either they need to learn to spell, or their errors highlight the fact that writers and editors are leaving them hanging and they’re having to do too much of the writing themselves.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        Or they’re working too independently and aren’t relying on the safety net that their proofreaders/writer/editors are.

        Reply
  13. Miles

    “If you hear that no, they never want to hear anything about a coworker, then you have a weird management dictate on your hands.”

    Or, your manager just doesn’t trust your judgement on big vs small errors any more and thinks nothing will change if she says that it’s OK to report big things or patterns.

    Reply
  14. Kathlynn

    I’m mixed on this topic. On one hand, I had a manager back me up, by telling me that she had no problem with how I did my work, and if a coworker came to me again with a question/complaint, to send him to her. She didn’t say this part: So she could decide if the complaint was valid or the new(er) employee needed to be (re)trained on how to do a task. But in this situation, I’d been with the company for years, he’d been there for a couple of months. (I was washing dishes, while kneeling on a step ladder. I knelt on a step ladder for a few other things as well. My boss didn’t mind). The job is/was also 100% customer facing, so much of my issues couldn’t be dealt with, because the people I had issues with, well weren’t calmly tempered.
    Yet, I’d also want my coworkers to say “hey you counted the coin wrong” rather then complain to the manager.
    I’d say, it depends on the person, place, incidents, and seniority on who and how one approaches a situation where you think there was a mistake made.
    Maybe, this is just a question with no 100% right answer. At least not one that doesn’t rely on additional questions to choose that answer.

    Reply
  15. Wilhelmina

    At the point where it affects your ability to get your job done, it’s valid to put it out there when discussing with your manager. “I have those three teapot projects to label and market — two of those are looking good, but the third one is going to Wilhelmina for painting, and in my experience, she always runs a little behind, so there’s some risk there.” But when Wilhelmina paints a teapot wrong, go directly to her, and point out the mistake without involving your manager. Then later if you need to, “oh, just wanted to give you a heads up, looks like those teapots aren’t through production yet, so that may impact the final date. ” But don’t do this to tattle on Wilhelmina or make her look bad — it’s just a variable, like if you need to budget more time for projects involving Wilhelmina.

    Reply
  16. Ariane

    My manager talks a lot about mistaken that are made by my colleagues. It’s so weird to hear it and we don’t know how to react to it. For our team it is a no go when a manager talks about the wrongs a coworker did. To be honest, you wouldn’t be appreciated by my colleagues.

    Reply
    1. Petronella

      Wow, that is so out of line! A manager should never bad-mouth an employee to that employee’s peers.

      Reply
  17. Important Moi

    While it “should” be management’s job to critique work that is not the directive that has been given. I would suggest doing exactly what management asked and documenting that you’ve done so as a means of covering yourself.

    Reply
  18. hildi

    At whatever point you do have to engage with your peer on feedback on their work, I’d suggest making your intent very clear to that person. One thing I have learned recently is that people aren’t quite as offended by the content as much as they are by what they perceive your intent to be. So how the feedback is received will largely depend on the relationship you have with your coworker and the tone in which you bring it up. You might have to pre-load your intent into the conversation: “Roger, you know our supervisor wants us to handle these things between ourselves,, which is awkward on this particular project. So I want you to know that my intent isn’t to act like your boss or to make you feel like I know better about Project X. What I am after is just clarification of your thought process when you decided Y, so that I can better put that into context of my piece for the project.” It might make the conversation go over a little better, particularly if you already have some tension in the peer relationship, or if the feedback is ultimately perceived by the person as critical of them.

    Reply
  19. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    Depends what it is. Many years ago I worked in computer operations. We would set up print jobs/projects.

    We got a new senior op, who was “buckin’ for sergeant”. One day he wrote a report on my operation of the print machine.

    He actually wrote –

    – I had put four part paper in the printer instead of three part – the report was short , like six pages. So I threw the other two extra copies away and sent the output where it was supposed to go.

    – I accidentally loaded the wrong form in the printer – after printing one page, I realized “oops” and restarted the job (this process takes around 30 seconds) — and proceeded.

    – I dropped a deck of 20 computer cards and re-assembled them.

    All this was “normal” in the daily operation of a computer center.

    He wrote all this to the operations manager – who promptly told him that THESE are not “mistakes” he wants to hear about.

    Reply
  20. OP

    Like I said in my original post, it’s not just sporadic mistakes that everyone makes as a result of being human. So yes, it’s a pattern.

    Reply
  21. Ilsa Hugh Gyfsa

    Given that directive, I’d just let it all slide. When I have addressed repeated serious issues with the higher ups and detailed how that will affect the work product, and they continue to let it go, then I just quit telling them, because it’s their problem now how they run their business, not mine. Just let it all go. I get the same paycheck either way. I’m tired of having to deal with incompetent people and laissez faire management.

    Reply
  22. Newbie Manager

    I have just started working as a manager and have already got into this brain-squeezing drama.
    I am into sales and I found that a colleague, who is also training me (as instructed by our manager), was committing scam in a way that the manager had asked for say 10x work but he was doing just 2x work and showing proofs as if 10x work has been done. I asked him about this and he pretended of knowing nothing. Then, I called up my manager (no office, we talk on calls) and casually mentioned that things are fd up here etc. Holy mother of God, he took my colleague on conference call and gave a bucket full of bashing.
    Needless to guess, now my colleague hates me, the other colleagues who were obviously his friends for a long time, hate me. And I feel suffocated now. Don’t know whether I should have blown the whistle or not. It has become a stressful ride.

    Reply

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