my employee never apologizes when his mistakes cause extra work for other people

A reader writes:

I have an employee who makes a lot of careless mistakes. He’s still learning, and the mistakes themselves are a separate issue, but my concern here is that he will email several people saying he found a problem — sometimes in an internal process, sometimes in a published report. It will take several back and forth emails to get the specifics, and multiple people have to then duplicate his checks, and it nearly always turns out to be his mistake. I think it’s a good idea at this point to apologize for causing people to worry and to do extra work, but he always skips the apology step.

I’ve talked to him about being careful not to become the “employee who cried wolf,” and about including replication steps in his initial reports, but am having a hard time with how (or whether?) to tell him that when this does happen, the expectation is that he apologize to people he inconvenienced, which often includes me.

I would like to take your usual advice and just have an awkward conversation, but I’m really at a loss as to how to say this in a way that doesn’t sound petty. I know this is a relatively petty question, and maybe it’s better to let it go. What do you think?

You know, normally I would say that you shouldn’t push an employee to apologize for making mistakes because the apology isn’t what’s important; what’s important is that they demonstrate that they understand how the mistake happened and how serious it is (if indeed it’s serious) and how to avoid it in the future. In most cases, I’d argue that focusing on wanting the person to apologize would be misguided, and would feel castigating in a way that’s not appropriate for work.

But in the specific situation that you’re describing, nudging him to apologize is appropriate. It would be weird if you were just trying to get him to apologize to you (you can’t really do that without looking like you’re on a bit of a power trip), but he should be acknowledging it to his colleagues when his carelessness or lack of attention caused them to have a bunch of back and forth about something that he was wrong about to begin with. He doesn’t need to flagellate himself and beg for forgiveness or anything, but he should acknowledge that this was on him and he regrets the error. If he doesn’t do that, he’s going to get a reputation for being not just careless, but also cavalier about that carelessness.

The easiest way to address this will be the next time it happens. While you’re addressing the mistake itself, you could say something like this: “When you make a mistake like this and people end up doing extra work because of it, you should acknowledge that happened and be explicit about saying that you regret the error. Otherwise it can come across as if you’re being cavalier with people’s time. So in this case, I’d suggest that you acknowledge to Jane and Fergus that you realize this caused them to spend extra time looking into this and that you’re sorry about the error.”

You could add, “It’s a good habit to get into in general. It’s not that people are looking for you to do penance, but you want to communicate that you take it seriously and respect their time.”

That said, the fact that this — the false alarms about mistakes — has happened more than once or twice is pretty worrisome. At a minimum, it sounds like you should tell him to stop emailing anyone but you when he thinks he’s found an error, and that he needs to follow a checklist of what information to include in such reports. But if he’s making rampant mistakes, that’s a much more pressing issue than how he handles the aftermath of those mistakes. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, but this might all be moot if he can’t actually master the work itself.

{ 106 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

    There’s an excellent post (on a blog I currently can’t link, thanks to work filters) called “How to Fuck Up” and it is a fabulous analysis of what makes a good apology. Among the points it makes are that you need to have a plan to how to keep your misstep from happening again, as well as to acknowledge and (if you can) recompense the people you’re apologizing to for what your mistake cost them — ie money, time, etc. I’m not sure that the recompensing part of it would really come into play in a work environment, but it seems to me like it would be a good jumping-off point to really get him to see that other people and the company as a whole has sustained actual costs in terms of time and energy due to his errors.

    Reply
    1. The Green Lawintern

      When I first read the post title, for some reason my brain did not parse it as “how to mess up” but as a play on managing up. All I could think was, “well, that’s one way of doing it.”

      …I think I need more coffee.

      Reply
  2. LSP

    Everyone makes mistakes. Being someone who recognizes and owns your mistakes is what makes someone stand out as a mature professional. There’s no shame in being someone who is still learning, but there is if you refuse to recognize, apologize for, and work to avoid making those same mistakes in the future.

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    1. LBK

      Totally agree – I had a manager once tell me that it had actually improved my reputation when I had been very straightforward and honest about some big error being completely my fault, because up to that point some people had thought I was a know-it-all and it showed humility that I didn’t try to beat around the bush when I screwed up.

      I find it also helps your credibility to be honest about your mistakes because in times when something truly isn’t your fault, people know they’re getting the straight story (because if it really were your fault, they know based on history that you’d just tell them that rather than invent some excuse).

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      1. Koko

        Fully agree. Being a trustworthy person is one of your most important workplace assets and will pay off in all kinds of situations. People will believe you, yes, and also they’ll give more weight to your input (because they know you won’t BS if you don’t know the answer) and be more comfortable giving you increased responsibility (because they know that you’ll reach out if you need help instead of trying to muddle through on your own to avoid looking incapable).

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      2. Ann Furthermore

        Absolutely. I shared some information in a meeting once, and based on the reactions of the other people there, realized that I probably shouldn’t have said anything. I found my boss right afterwords, told her what I’d done, and apologized for my mistake. On my review for that year was a comment about my being honest and trustworthy, and owning up to my mistakes when I screw up.

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  3. Detective Amy Santiago

    I have a coworker who makes a lot of careless mistakes and it is incredibly frustrating, especially when it seems like the boss isn’t addressing them.

    Even if you get him to apologize, it would be worth it to at least acknowledge to your other employees that it’s an issue and you’re working on it.

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    1. Zombeyonce

      I disagree. I don’t think that LW needs to tell other people about disciplinary/coaching issues with another employee. They need to fix it so the employee makes it better, but that he’s being coached about something isn’t their business and could haunt him after he (hopefully) fixes this problem.

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  4. Snark

    I honestly see the “hay guise I found an error” and then hours and many emails later discovering it was his own mistake as the bigger issue. This guy sounds like he’s wasting a vast amount of time by playing dumb and letting other people do his quality control for him. And at heart, it sounds like these are careless errors, not honest mistakes.

    That said, acknowledging ownership of a mistake is just kind of expected of a stand-up professional, and I think he does need that coaching. But his entire attitude towards errors is problematic, and I think it needs to be addressed holistically as kind of a “this is how I expect you to handle potential errors” conversation.

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    1. LBK

      Eh, I think it depends – I’ve totally been guilty of that, where I think something is an error, I send an email about it and then later as I’m working on something else a realization dawns on me that I had screwed something up. Or, potentially, I send a quick note based on preliminary findings while I’m still digging into something because if there is an issue I want to make sure the necessary resources are aware and ready to pivot, but then as I continue to research it turns out there isn’t an issue.

      I think this all depends on how you approach it, though, and more importantly what your batting average is for actually being right about issues. I get more free passes to do stuff like the above because generally when I raise an issue it’s legit.

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      1. Dust Bunny

        Yeah, but this sounds almost habitual. I mean, I’ve done this *a few times* and then quickly backtracked and owned it when I realized I’d done something boneheaded. But we’re talking a handful of times in 13 years at this job. And he should still be trying to figure out the situation himself before he drags everyone else into it.

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      2. Snark

        Sure, but how often does that happen? I’d wager it’s an exception, not what you do every time you discover something is off. And like you say, your approach matters – you don’t burn capital if you handle it right, but this guy totally is.

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        1. Snark

          And, like I said, dragging others into your quality control is a third, fourth, fifth step. It just sounds like he flies the flag, wastes everyone’s time running down the problem, and then goes :| when everybody realizes it was HIS screwup. And he does this every time he finds an error, just as his general approach to error resolution. None of that is okay.

          In contrast, you’re flying the flag, digging in, and letting people know what comes out of it. That’s how he should be handling it.

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          1. Jesca

            Im with you. I am literally sitting at my desk now laughing, because I feel like OP just wrote in about a guy where I work. And it is literally like at least once a week!!! And it would all be prevented if HE JUST DOUBLE-CHECKED. Or hell, even just email one or two people and ask a question! But this guy is blasting this crap out to like 8 people Every Single Time causing mayhem and even embarrassment (he copies the suppliers he is talking about it). He is always wrong. And never apologizes. But honestly even if he did, I wouldn’t even consider it. You do this once or twice – fine. You do this once or twice a week, then you need retraining. This is the quality department, and he makes us look like asses every time. I wish my manager would do something.

            So, OP honestly if he is anything like this guy I work with, an apology isn’t even going to matter at this point. The dude needs to stop. If he sent an apology right now, people would just think its crap, because if he was truly sorry he would clearly stop doing it.

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            1. President Porpoise

              It’s worse when the error reporting email is made in rude, accusatory, or pretentious language. We used to have one of those. It was awful. We were all relieved when she transferred to another group.

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            2. The Supreme Troll

              Jesca, I am really sorry that you have to work with a guy like that. People like him are trying to make themselves look “super-duper important & serious” (just my take on them) while not helping their team accomplish their goals.

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            3. Djuna

              I recognize this too! I’ve come to see it as an ass-backwards way of profile-raising.
              This may not completely apply to the OP, but there is a certain type that does this where I work. They love to point fingers and claim there are errors or oversights where none exist. They also frequently end up looking foolish when the lack of error is pointed out to them.

              There’s never an apology though, it just seems to spur them on to find more things to raise flags about. I can’t figure out the mindset other than to guess at it being misguided ambition (if I make other teams look bad, I’ll look good!) but all it really does is annoy people and make the complainer stand out for all the wrong reasons. A manager who is willing to address this in the right way (maybe something like “This is having the opposite effect on your reputation than the one you intend” and presenting it as a concern about the employee’s own future prospects rather than the effect on other teams?) would be doing this kind of employee a favor.

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      3. SignalLost

        This whole comment is key. I know I shouldn’t read into OP’s letter, but characterizing something as a mistake with the terminology she’s used makes me think we are looking at something fairly trivial that just happens to take a lot of time to fix – that’s not on the same level as alerting the project managers that we have a possible problem with our Chinese product and then doing the work to verify it. (Actual incident I’ve dealt with.) This guy is pulling the fire alarm without ever looking to see if there really is a fire, and then leaving it up to others to look into that because he can’t tell the difference between a cigarette and a vape.

        Obviously, if the mistakes happening are not similar mistakes, my preceding paragraph is only partly relevant. But I feel like along with coaching this guy to apologize there should also be coaching him on how to make these kinds of “I found an error!” mistakes as well. Not doing that seems like a misstep that will cost a lot in time and goodwill for your team if he’s not getting how this should go.

        Reply
      4. Akcipitrokulo

        I can see that – but if it turns out to have been your original error, you probably acknowledge that. I think that’s the main issue. People make mistakes, people raise false alarms, people sometimes find a mistake and raise it only to find out it was them in the first place…. all of that happens…. but not acknowledging it? That’s an issue.

        It is possible they’re coming from a toxic workplace where you didn’t admit mistakes or all hell would break loose on you. In which case he does need to lose that habit, but it’s worth checking.

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        1. LBK

          I agree, but Snark’s original comment that I was replying to was saying that the act itself was the bigger problem, not the lack of acknowledgment: I honestly see the “hay guise I found an error” and then hours and many emails later discovering it was his own mistake as the bigger issue.

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        2. Snark

          And like I said: it’s the whole approach to finding and working through a potential error that’s the problem.
          Acknowledging it is the standup thing to do, but it sounds like he makes careless errors all the time and lets other people chase them down and clean them up, and that sounds like a bigger issue than acknowledging it. Obviously he should acknowledge it, but I think OP has a bigger and more fundamental performance issue to deal with as part of that.

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    2. ouinne

      Yes, him jumping the gun and pointing the finger at other people when he hasn’t thoroughly validated the problem is the issue more than the non-apology to me.

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    3. JamieS

      I had a similar thought but I wasn’t sure if there was an error and he was trying to get others to do his QC or if the mistake was reporting errors that don’t actually exist. I think in this case it’s mostly the latter but OP should be on the lookout for the former.

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    4. JulieBulie

      Right? If it’s just a couple of times while he’s getting his legs, that’s understandable, but it’s become a pattern.

      It’s actually pretty bizarre that he isn’t questioning himself when he thinks he’s found another “error.” Like, instead of telling people “I think this is wrong,” he should be asking, “I don’t understand this. Can someone explain it to me please?” Isn’t that how most people would handle this? Because if you’re still learning, that’s how you learn. By asking, not telling.

      And yeah, he should be AT LEAST as concerned about the errors he’s making as he is about the non-errors that he thinks he’s finding in everyone else’s work.

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    5. Turtle Candle

      Yeah. I mean, once in a blue moon it’s fine. I in fact just yesterday had a situation where I emailed my team with, “So something someone did in the CSS is causing the page to display weirdly, can you check your projects?” And then realized an hour later after a lot of “looks fine on my end?” that I had goofed something up in the build and it was my fault. But like I say, once in a blue moon–rare!–and of course I told my team, “ARGH, sorry, this was my bad, I apologize for taking up your time!” If it was a regular thing, it’d be a huuuuuge issue.

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    6. Jennifer Thneed

      > and then hours and many emails later

      This is what jumps out at me. Lots of meetings get dramatically shorter once someone figures out how expensive they are. A decade or more, the rule of thumb was to figure $100 per hour per person, between salary and benefits and averaging everything out.

      So if the OP treats this as a sort of rolling meeting, how many person-hours are devoted to figuring out each of these false alarms? How expensive are this guy’s mistakes, and how often is he causing that expense? How many lunches out could OP buy the group with that same money? (Would that actually get thru to the guy, do you think? I mean, I’m using it as a thought-experiment to see how expensive these mistakes are, but maybe he could see it in terms of something concrete and get motivated by that to change his bad habits?)

      Reply
  5. Hey Karma, Over here.

    Explain that adding, “I apologize for any inconvenience, ” at the beginning or the end of an email is a professional protocol. It is not a sign of weakness or a legally binding statement that confirms the writer made the mistake. It’s a professional nicety that makes people open to the conversation.

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    1. fposte

      I think that’s a reasonable point, but in light of his behavior something more accountable is called for. “I apologize for any inconvenience” is basically another version of “I’m sorry if”–a non-apology apology. If this guy is repeatedly making other people scramble because of the errors he’s only belatedly realizing are his own, he needs an apology apology. “I’m really sorry, guys; that mistake was mine and I jumped the gun. I’ll be more careful in future.”

      Reply
        1. Observer

          No, this is not training wheels, it’s camouflage.

          Even an insincere “Oops, my bad” is better in this context, and that’s pretty lame.

          Reply
    2. Hope

      If this is something he’s doing repeatedly, that “apology” is going to start sounding passive-aggressive pretty quickly.

      Reply
    3. Trout 'Waver

      Why apologize if you’re avoiding confirming that you made a mistake? What’s even the point? It’s not even an apology at that point.

      Reply
  6. Maya Elena

    No disagreement with the response. The only expiating circumstance I can think of regarding his general tendency towards errors is if you have him doing a large project with lots of minute details that is begging for errors (e.g., entering lots of handwritten numbers into a spreadsheet, reviewing reams of records with numerical tables, building a spreadsheet with lots of really involved formulas) alone and on a short timetable, and don’t actually allocate enough legit resources for checking.

    But that doesn’t sound like the case, and he should still apologize.

    Reply
    1. Observer

      Even then the fact that he sends out these emails without the requisite information is a big deal. That adds a lot f work for others, with little time saved for him.

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      1. Maya Elena

        I don’t disagree. He sounds like a PITA really. Neck, if he does this as a matter of habit, any apology will fall flat anyway.

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  7. Calacademic

    I made a mistake last week, thinking a chemical bottle we just received was expired. I was looking at the wronge bottle. My note to both affected parties: “Hi All, I sincerely apologize for my error. I misread the receive date on this old bottle (1/18/17) as 11/8/17.” Maybe could have been longer (it now reads pretty short) but it was sincerely meant. This type of thing is a courtesy and a sign of professionalism.

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    1. Naptime Enthusiast

      Honestly I think that’s fine. You admit it was your error, everything is fine now, and you don’t spend paragraphs beating yourself up over it.

      Reply
  8. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

    I’m a little unclear on what is happening.

    Is it that the employee notices a problem that he should have caught earlier (so his mistake is in causing the problem or not catching it before the work moved on from him), or that he identifies a problem that doesn’t exist (so his mistake is in calling out an issue that doesn’t need calling out)?

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    1. Ivy

      I think it’s the latter given that OP says “nearly always turns out to be his mistake”. He can’t have been emailing already saying it was his mistake if it turns out that way.
      For example “Guys, the numbers from this report don’t match what I pulled from the system”. (insert back and forths to figure out what is being compared). “Well, you forgot to apply filter X, so of course they don’t match”

      Reply
        1. SusanIvanova

          Ohh…
          I’ve worked with that guy in QA. At least it was always the same kind of issue, though, so every single time when he got a new file to check and came back with “there are X thousand errors!” we told him that he has to pick a filter level appropriate for the file. (Imagine comparing the pixelized version of an image to the insanely-high-rez original. Of course it doesn’t match exactly, but it’s only a problem if the differences are outside the tolerance level.) It got to the point where I had a running tally of the times he’d stopped by my office (at least 15, IIRC), and we joked about adding a condition to the test scripts: “if user==Wolfie report no errors”.

          It was very much a “boy crying wolf” situation, except that there never once was an actual wolf. All the engineers considered him to be a total waste of time and a symptom of what was wrong with the company.

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        2. MashaKasha

          That was my guess. Yeah, that’d be infuriating. IME, after a while, people would start ignoring his emails.

          Then again, also IME, quite a few of this type of people end up in upper management somehow and then, instead of a “hey guys I found a problem” email to a small group, it ends up being, “here’s a high-priority production-issue ticket, I am assigning it to you, Fergus, this needs fixed by the end of today”; possibly also followed by, at annual review time, “well Fergus I cannot rate your performance as satisfactory, because look how many production issue tickets you’ve had logged against you”.

          It would be amazing, OP, if you helped this guy correct this attitude before it grows roots. That’s the kind of stuff that makes good employees quit, when it’s coming from the upper levels.

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    2. OP

      It’s the second.

      A lot of the projects in question are long-running projects that other analysts checked during their design phases and earlier production phases, so while an error isn’t impossible (and if they were real, some of the errors in question would have been things I myself missed), it is less likely.

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      1. NW Mossy

        That’s probably something worth pointing out to him directly, too, because if this takes root, it can be really hard to unlearn.

        I manage analysts too, and one of the things I see crop up from time to time in my employees is a belief that it’s on them to find All The Things and that they are solely responsible for validating every aspect of a process touched by 10 different people. It tends to be tied up with being extremely conscientious, very fearful of risk, and some catastorphized thinking (“OMG, if this slips through, the world is over!!!!”). If it gets out of hand, it results in a ton of duplicated effort as they check and recheck things exhaustively.

        I tee this conversation up like this: “I appreciate that you’re committed to accuracy, but you’re going further than you need to on it. The things you’re looking at have been reviewed multiple times along the way, and reviewing something that’s already been validated is unlikely to yield enough caught mistakes to make it worth the time you’re spending on it. Instead, your focus should be on validating your own work to make sure that what’s in your control is done correctly.”

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      2. IT Dweeb

        Sounds like the issue is really more that he’s encountering something that doesn’t make sense to him, and instead of asking a detailed question (like “I’m not getting these numbers to match up–see line 35 on the attached spreadsheet. Is there something I’m missing?”), he’s jumping to some conclusion (like “the numbers don’t match up, clearly somebody screwed up generating the TPS reports from last year”). The latter sends everybody scrambling to double-check the TPS report query, and look at the database to make sure the numbers from last year still make sense, until eventually somebody figures out that there’s nothing wrong with the TPS reports.

        Apologizing at that point is for the best, but the issue that really needs to be addressed is his hubris in jumping to conclusions based on limited knowledge rather than having the humility to ask questions.

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  9. Myrin

    I feel completely dumb and like I’m missing something – and this could totally be a language problem on my part – but I’m not quite getting the situation: The employee makes a lot of mistakes, but are these the same mistakes he emails others about? And if so, is he upfront about this (as in “Oh shit you guys I just realised there’s an entire paragraph missing of that report I wrote!”) or does he seem to be passing the mistakes off as others’ fault (as in “Guys, there’s an entire paragraph missing in the Latest Teapot Report” and then ten emails later it comes out that he himself was supposed to write the paragraph)? Or are the emails themselves the mistake, in that there wasn’t actually a factual mistake to begin with and he just misread or misunderstood?

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    1. Dust Bunny

      I think he’s making mistakes, but also finding “mistakes” and raising the alarm, but then they turn out not to be mistakes, and he doesn’t apologize for interrupting everyone else’s work to address a mistake he found that wasn’t actually a mistake, or was a mistake that he made and should have caught in the first place.

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    2. Snark

      It sounds like that second one – “Guys, there’s an entire paragraph missing in the Latest Teapot Report” and then ten emails later it comes out that he himself was supposed to write the paragraph)?”

      Like, he finds errors in a work product, emails everybody, lets everyone scurry for hours around figuring out what went wrong, and then usually it turns out what went wrong was he made a mistake…and then he just carries on like “welp, mistakes were made!” and doesn’t own either the mistake or the hassle he put everyone through.

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    3. LBK

      It sounds to me more like he’s seeing things that look wrong but only because he’s doing something wrong himself. For example, screwing up the criteria for a report he’s running and rather than double checking to make sure he ran the report correctly, just assuming that something must be wrong with the system (no, I’ve never done this, why do you ask?).

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  10. Lizabeth

    I’ve learned over the years that owning one’s mistakes immediately and apologizing goes over better than any other method. That said it’s gets difficult if the employee is clueless about the mistakes they’re making to start with.

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    1. Alternative person

      This. Some of my co-workers have shown a horrifyingly cavalier attitude to lateness/no-showing recently. No apologies or even mild contrition. By not saying sorry, they’re compounding the negative act (which could have been an unintentional slip-up) by acting as if they don’t care about the knock on effect they had on everyone else.

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    2. Blue

      Checklists for reviewing his work and for investigating a potential error clearly need to be a requirement for this guy until he gets it together. I wonder if he even realizes how much trouble he’s causing everyone else. I say this mostly because I work with a lot of college-aged people, and it doesn’t even occur to some of them that their actions and decisions impact others. To their credit, their behavior usually changes dramatically once it’s pointed out to them. If OP hasn’t already explicitly outlined why what he’s doing is a problem and how it impacts everyone else on the team, I’d start there. If nothing else, he can probably grasp, “This may not seem important to you, but it’s a big deal to everyone on the team. If you continue to do it, you will lose your standing with them, and that will have a negative impact on your career.”

      Reply
  11. Mallory

    even when things aren’t technically my fault, but still ultimately fall under my umbrella of responsibility, i always take ownership of the mistake. the optics are *one billion times better* than ignoring the mistake or placing blame (even indirectly) on someone else.

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  12. Beatrice

    I still don’t think the apology is the point here. The problem is that he’s reviewing processes and reports, and where he finds something that doesn’t make sense to him, he’s reporting it as a problem instead of approaching it as something he doesn’t understand or might be missing. He’s new! He’s learning! He, and the people who are following up on his emails, need to recognize that he doesn’t have the knowledge/context yet to accurately define things as problems yet. Everything that doesn’t look right needs to be treated as something he doesn’t understand, that may or may not be a problem. He should not be saying, “hey guys, I found a problem with this TPS report, it should say Z, not Y,” he should be saying “hey guys, can you look at this TPS report and tell me why it says Y instead of Z? I would expect Z because yadda yadda.” Ideally, he should be running this by a more experienced peer first, before going to someone outside his own team, so you’re not disrupting outside teams with this. If he has to run it by someone outside your team (who presumably bears no responsibility for training him whatsoever), the script should be a little more more slanted toward “please teach me”, and he should be patient about getting responses on their timeline and not his.

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    1. LBK

      This is a great comment. I’m running into this constantly right now since we’re transitioning reporting systems and I’m spending half my day talking people off ledges who are convinced the new system is broken and terrible when in reality it’s just different and they haven’t learned how to use it correctly yet.

      I think you’re totally right that you don’t necessarily need to stop the flood of questions, but they need to be posed as questions and only raised to a limited number of people at first rather than being called out as errors to a larger group.

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    2. Snark

      “He’s new! He’s learning! He, and the people who are following up on his emails, need to recognize that he doesn’t have the knowledge/context yet to accurately define things as problems yet. ”

      Maybe so, but even if he doesn’t know whether it’s a problem or not, his approach of letting others run the issue to ground for him is problematic – and it’s not the way to learn. You learn by pushing it as far as you can, then asking for help in a “I think this is an error, and I did this this and this to track it down, but I suspect it was that. Could you help me figure it out?” And, as OP says, the ultimate errors are careless. Even if he’s genuinely confused and still learning, the carelessness needs to stop.

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      1. Observer

        Especially since the OP has pointed out to him things he should be doing when he finds these “errors” and he is NOT doing them!

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        1. Snark

          Yeah. There’s a certain lack of ownership and accountability throughout the entire process, capped off by the missing apology.

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    3. Purplesaurus

      He, and the people who are following up on his emails, need to recognize that he doesn’t have the knowledge/context yet to accurately define things as problems yet. Everything that doesn’t look right needs to be treated as something he doesn’t understand, that may or may not be a problem.

      And I’m a bit surprised so many coworkers are accommodating this. I don’t know the nature of the work so it might make sense for them to jump on, but I’d personally trust the accuracy of mine and my coworker’s work over the uninformed assumptions of a recent hire.

      Reply
      1. Beatrice

        Yep! Even if the nature of the work is such that every problem that is reported needs to be taken seriously and investigated, where I am he’d lose the ability to officially report problems until his training was up to par – he would need a buddy to go over his findings and confirm that his suspected problems are most likely real problems before they’d be reported. At my job, if other teams were burning calories looking into his bogus problem reports, his team would be strongly urged to get him under control, and they’d quickly start to lose credibility and goodwill if they didn’t. An apology would barely register.

        Reply
        1. LBK

          I think this is a big part of it, too – he needs to be more cognizant about raising things to the larger group. He should have one or two people (like, maybe his manager and a team senior) that he can bring things to that can evaluate whether they need to be raised to a wider audience. Definitely agree that his privileges of sending up signal flares for everyone to see should be revoked until such time as he’s proven to be better at spotting errors.

          Reply
      2. LBK

        Speaking from my own experience, I can have a gut sense that someone is probably doing something wrong, but it can still be fairly involved to prove out why they’re wrong and be able to explain it to them. For instance, if someone thinks a report looks off, I usually have to go through the process of running the report myself the way that I would do it, then doing a comparison.

        Reply
  13. Bookworm

    Aside from the issue that he doesn’t really understand what he’s doing, that he doesn’t apologize for it is a red flag for me. I haven’t really dealt with this directly as a workplace issue but I have in my personal life (although the people who do this usually don’t highlight what they’re doing). No disagreement with Alison’s response but you may need to keep an eye on *how* he responds aside from the awkwardness of this entire conversation. He might genuinely not realize he’s forgetting/leaving out that step. Or he may also feel he doesn’t need to apologize for whatever reason–that he isn’t wrong to do what he’s doing (flagging things that end up being his mistakes and wasting the time of others).

    Alison rightly talks about how perhaps this employee may not be up to doing this work at all but someone who is unable or unwilling to accept responsibility that they’re in the wrong may be something you will also have to handle. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. RVA Cat

      This. I don’t think the mistakes are the problem, so much as his attitude and approach about them. As his manager, the OP needs to take a hard look at how he responds to coaching to see whether it’s worthwhile to keep him on in this position.

      Reply
      1. Wannabe Disney Princess

        Yes. I work with someone like this. I feel my whole body tense up when he sends an email. I know he’s going to be wrong. I know it’s going to take me an the other (at minimum) five people he’s copied hours to straighten it out. And, I know, he’s not going to acknowledge it was his mistake and a time suck. Worst of all? I know management isn’t going to do a damn thing about it.

        So, yes, OP. Make sure it is worth it for the rest of the team that he holds this position. Because resentment can build mighty fast.

        Reply
        1. FormerEmployee

          Perhaps the entire group should try timing how long it took each person to research each of these matters and send an email to management after it happens outlining the hours involved. If management regularly received emails that showed that Annoying Fellow Employee (AFE) sent a “problem” email to Jane, Fergus, Wakeen, Ethelred, Brunhulde and WDP and that each spent a minimum of X hours on responding only to find that AFE was wrong, management might see the bigger picture, which is that the company is wasting hundreds/thousands of dollars due AFE, and take some action.

          Best of luck.

          Reply
        2. Natalie

          I’ve had a couple of coworkers and vendors like this, and since I had the capital to do so I straight up backburnered their problems. (I would obviously not have done that if it was a genuine emergency, but – big surprise – it never was.) As the LW coaches this guy, it’s worth mentioning that people will, consciously or not, start downgrading his emails in their mental queue.

          Reply
  14. Observer

    I think Alison is right that the lack of apology is not your biggest problem. But I do think that it just highlights the more fundamental issue, which is that he apparently doesn’t take any responsibility for his work and mistakes, and doesn’t give a hoot about the problems he causes others.

    He needs an attitude adjustment, and pointing out the need for acknowledgement and apology should be only one of the steps you take to deal with that. But, ultimately, if he doesn’t start making significant changes, you really should consider managing him out.

    Does this guy have any customer facing responsibilities? Because if he does then you risk a lot of damage with customers.

    Reply
  15. Roscoe

    I don’t know, I just feel like making someone apologize is a bit to parental for me. I get that its the polite thing to do, but I don’t know that saying “Go apologize to Alice” is good in a work place. A forced apology means nothing. Also, do you even know if they care. I know personally, I really don’t think I’d care much about an apology, especially an insincere one.

    Honestly, I think this would be a better thing coming from a work friend than a boss. Now, maybe if you know he is close with a certain person, you could bring it up to them and say “Maybe you want to tip him off how he is coming across to others when he doesn’t apologize.”

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s not “go apologize to Alice,” which I agree is too parental. It’s “if you don’t explicitly say you regret your error, you look like you’re being cavalier with people’s time. So I recommend that you acknowledge to Jane that you realize blah blah blah.”

      Reply
    2. LBK

      It doesn’t sound like it’s necessarily a true apology that’s missing so much as an acknowledgment. I don’t think the words “I’m sorry” have to be explicitly stated in these conversations, but it doesn’t sound like he’s even going so far as to say “Yeah, this was my mistake, will make sure I check my report filters next time” or something else that shows he understands that he caused the issue. It’s not about expressing regret, it’s about iterative learning.

      I don’t care about being apologized to, I care about the person showing me that they understand the situation and that I’m not going to have to go through this with them again.

      Reply
      1. CM

        Yes, this. I might be an iota less annoyed if I got an apology, but I would still think the person was incompetent and my time was wasted. (If it’s a pattern. Not once in a while, which is NBD.)

        I want to see evidence that this person is thinking through the problem and taking steps to change it. I really like Alison’s advice of saying that he needs to filter all the “I caught a mistake” emails through the OP or another designated person first before raising the alarm to a larger group. Basically, if he’s annoying everybody through careless emails, take away his email privileges until he’s shown he can use them responsibly.

        Reply
  16. Mamunia

    I’ve noticed that some people won’t apologize, not because they think they were right, but because they think apologizing is calling attention to the fact they were wrong. And if you have or have had a manager that throws you under the bus, you might be more wary about admitting mistakes. Like somehow it’s better that they think you didn’t know you were wrong.

    Reply
  17. ArtK

    Good luck getting him to include all the relevant information at the start. I’m in software and I’ve long since lost track of the number of incomplete bug reports that I’ve received. This includes coming from testers and other colleagues who have been in the business a long time and have been asked repeatedly to include the information. “X didn’t work” is the most detail I get sometimes. Then we go on to the twenty questions. “What were you trying to do with X?” “What was the expected result and what was the actual result?” “Error messages?” “Please include the system logs — pointing me to your machine won’t work when I start to debug this in 2 weeks, assuming that I *do* have access to it.” “Steps to recreate?” With one of my colleagues *every* problem is “Critical” or “Blocker,” no matter what the impact of the problem is.

    Reply
    1. Silver

      Oh god, I’d wanna hurt them.

      I always worry I’m sending too much info, but I figure better too much than missing something. And sometimes in the middle of gathering the info, I figure out what I did wrong.

      Reply
  18. hbc

    I think no matter what the problem is (making his own errors the problem of others or finding “errors” that aren’t), he should be changing more than just whether or not he includes an apology.

    -He should not be panicking. History is telling him that there’s a good chance he’s wrong, so this should not be a drop-everything for him and several others. Less “OMG the code is broken, fix it!,” more “I seem to have problems compiling the code and am getting error X. I tried Y and Z but can’t find anything. Any ideas?” The bonus is that he gets to end with a thank you rather than an apology.

    -He should include a lot more detail to prevent back and forth. It sounds like he’s made enough mistakes by now to anticipate some of the questions that will come back, so it’s pretty unforgivable if he doesn’t take the time to include details that might be relevant.

    -He should be bugging fewer people. The more people you involve, the more sure you have to be that there’s a real problem. Ideally, since it’s a good chance it’s a learning opportunity for him, he should be taking it to you.

    Reply
  19. NEW YEAR, NEW ME

    My ex-employer had a CEO that would make changes in our homegrown system but apparently never refreshed or updated them, thus allegedly having his staff to make other fixes repeatedly. One of his staffers actually got let go because the owners kept wondering why the staffer was doing the same work all the time.

    Reply
  20. Cassie

    Besides lacking in manners, it sounds like this employee has poor problem-solving skills, which can be one of the hardest things to teach. You can’t give a linear thinker a list of steps to memorize and say “Done. Now you can problem solve.”

    Reply
  21. Guacamole Bob

    OP, have you noticed other problems with his attitude? The attitude that leads to the kind of thing you’re describing – assuming that things he comes across are mistakes rather than assuming that they have an explanation and trying to understand them, not acknowledging his own errors, not valuing his colleagues’ time – tend to make people very difficult to work with. It takes a certain kind of arrogance and overly high self-confidence to email around about an error in this way repeatedly. His default assumption is that his first thought as a newish hire is more likely to be accurate than something that was checked by multiple more senior people for publication, and that sounds like someone who would be insufferable to work with more generally.

    What’s the opposite of impostor syndrome? It seems like whatever it is, this guy has it.

    Reply
    1. Louise

      “Oh to have the confidence of a mediocre white man” is something I mutter to myself very often over here in the bay area…

      Reply
  22. Natalie

    I tend to agree that the apology or acknowledgement issue his secondary to what sounds like a chicken-with-head-cut-off response to anything that looks slightly wonky. I developed this tendency in my first job due to some of my own traits plus bad management that reinforced it. But it’s really not insurmountable, especially if he’s young and still developing work habit.

    Thing One (for him) is to S L O W the eff down. I’m assuming y’all aren’t in the business of piloting nuclear submarines, performing open heart surgery, or even guarding envelopes for a live awards show. He should not send out an email the second he notices an error. If he is afraid he’ll forget about it, that’s what a notepad is for.

    It’s not clear to me if this is the kind of process where he can proceed without resolving each small error or not, but either way, whenever he can’t proceed further the next step is to double check the relevant settings, inputs, file version, etc, and be extra, extra sure what he’s looking at is an actual error. After that it sounds like he should be emailing you directly, rather than looping in the whole team, since it seems like he has burned his goodwill with his colleagues.

    One thing I want to mention regarding apologizing or not – if I was this guy’s coworker, I would care way more about him changing his behavior around this than I would about him acknowledging that he caused me an inconvenience. It doesn’t really matter how sincere the apology is if he keeps being this annoying over and over.

    Reply
  23. Sparky

    Learning to recognize the downstream effects of your mistakes(/actions) is a major part of maturing at work (and in life, I guess). I have had to coach very early career people on recognizing the consequences of their actions—they didn’t even realize what they were causing, much less that they needed to apologize.

    Reply
  24. Alfonzo F.

    This is funny because as a manager, the thing that drives me CRAZY more than anything else is when my employees apologize. I mean, this is an office, not a therapist’s chair. “Sorry” is a feeling, and this isn’t the place for that. What I MUCH PREFER is basic acknowledgement of the error and a clear understanding of how to fix it and prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future.

    Now granted, my employees don’t screw up all that much…I might feel differently if I had one who screwed up regularly.

    Reply
    1. Louise

      Huh, I’d actually disagree that “sorry” is a feeling—I would argue (putting on my linguistics nerd hat) that apologizing is a performative utterance, in that it’s enacting a social agreement of sorts. It at once takes responsibility for an action, acknowledges and respects the time and actions of others, and gives permission for others to hold you accountable in the future. It’s not about expressing how you feel bad (or at least not when it’s a proper apology imo) but instead is about taking responsibility.

      Of course, if the mistakes keep happening and people keep saying “sorry” without changing their behavior, that’s a different issue. But I don’t think apologizing is inherently as ~feeeeelings~ as much as it is acknowledging that we messed something up in the social contract and letting others know that we get that we messed up (with the hopeful follow up of “and will try not to repeat the mistake.”)

      Reply
      1. Turtle Candle

        Yes. Sort of like, the “Sorry!” I say when brushing into someone while walking down the street isn’t a feeling I feel deep in my soul. In fact, it’s totally reflex. (As witness by the fact that sometimes I say “Sorry!” when I bump into a chair.) But that doesn’t mean it isn’t doing something. It’s a way of saying, “Fellow human! I acknowledge that I have minorly intruded on you in some way and that it was not intentional!” I mean, I do feel sorry when I brush into people, but I say it because it’s part of being a human being existing in the world; it would be silly for me to stop and wait for a feeling of deep regret to overcome me before saying “Sorry” to the person I’d bumped.

        That’s a really surface example, but I think a lot of basic apologies–I’m sorry I spilled the water glass, I’m sorry I sent you the wrong file, I’m sorry I forgot to do the dishes–are less about feeling a gut-level feeling of regret than about, well, acknowledging that someone else is a human being who I have minorly inconvenienced. If an apology is about something deep, important, or inherently emotional, the feelings and how deeply they are felt are important. But most of the time it’s about saying, hey, small breach of the social contract happened, and this is the brief ritual that we use to mend it, so that we can both feel like human beings functioning in society.

        Reply
  25. Been there

    The good news is that this is an employee and not a coworker or peer.

    I think I’d start him out by saying that there have been quite a few instances of things being reported as problems that in fact turned out to not be problems. Explain that this is causing extra work for everyone and that he’s hurting his credibility. Here’s how I would address things. 1. When he finds the next ‘problem’ instead of the chicken little email, he’s to come to you directly and explain what he thinks is going wrong. 2. If you agree that it looks fishy, then he’s to email the group with his explanation and he’s to frame it in the form of a question. Help him with a script.

    “Dear contestants, I noticed that figures in column B are not adding up to the results from tab A. It’s my understanding that we add in all the teapot sales from region A-D, except C. Can you confirm my understanding and/or add any relevant information that I may have missed.

    Thanks for your time looking at this.
    Respectfully Alex

    3.If you spot the non problem then you can turn it into a learning experience and provide additional training or coach him on how he needs to do the analysis on his own first, before involving other people.

    Even when I’m dead sure there is a problem I still phrase it in the form of a question or couch it with “I may be missing something” because I don’t always have all of the updates or the information that is available. (My track record for problem/no problem is pretty high, but I know I don’t always get it right).

    Reply
  26. GreenDoor

    Yes! Apologies matter in the workplace. I had a supervisor that would never, ever admit to a mistake. You could show her in black and white that it was she who erred and she’d brush it off with a “well, that’s neither here nor there” or “regardless….”

    But boy if she caught a mistake of yours you’d never hear the end of it. Like a kid getting a scolding from a frustrated parent. I had zero respect for that. I don’t expect my higher ups to be perfect just because they’re higher than me on the chain. But I do respect them so much more when they can admit their own flaws or errors. Apologies and expressions of regret are important no matter where you are in the hierarchy.

    Reply
  27. The Supreme Troll

    While I’m not a mind reader, I’m getting a vibe from the OP’s employee that he is involving multiple people in emails about “mistakes” so that he appears as the good employee who is helping the company in the eyes of his coworkers and the OP’s. I’m sure, by now, the employee knows that he can very well be causing the mistakes himself, but by making somewhat of a spectacle of finding these errors and letting everybody on the team know, I think that he is kind of puffing up his self-importance in front of his peers (well, at least trying to) and hoping that he does not get the reputation as a careless employee.

    Alison’s advice is definitely on point, especially the part where the OP should be clear with her employee not to email his fellow workers with this stuff, but come to the OP directly. And, of course, the OP should ask herself whether or not her employee can even properly perform the necessary duties of this job effectively.

    Reply
  28. AdAgencyChick

    I think this person needs to reframe his entire attitude. It sounds like a lot of the problem is that he’s coming at his coworkers from a perspective of “I know something you don’t,” when he should really be approaching his work with more humility and understanding of how much he doesn’t know.

    If you can get him to reframe his thinking in that way, then not only should apologizing for the time he costs other people when he causes a kerfuffle become a natural reaction, but also he should cry wolf a lot less often. An employee who thinks “I know better” will email the team with “I found a problem.” An employee who realizes “I am still learning and if something doesn’t look right to me, that’s likely a sign that I don’t know something important” will ask a colleague or his manager, “Can you explain this to me?” without emailing the whole dang team.

    In managing through a similar issue with an employee who thought he knew more than he did, it wasn’t enough to ask him to change individual behaviors. He had to be told to approach his entire job differently, otherwise it was like Whac-a-Mole. If OP tells this guy to apologize and he does it, but he continues to pester people when he shouldn’t, that’s not much of an improvement.

    Reply
    1. Observer

      Well, asking him to be cognizant of the fact that he owes people an apology is actually part of asking him for an attitude change. Because one of his issues seems to be that he doesn’t get that he is causing problems that he shouldn’t be.

      However, it seems to me that lack of humility is not the core problem, as bad as it is. The key issue is that he can’t be bothered to do his job right. The OP says that he “makes a lot of careless mistakes” and that he is apparently not only not double checking the “mistakes” he finds, but he doesn’t even bother to include all of the necessary information in his emails. If he can’t get that tendency under control nothing is going to improve even if he changes his approach from “You guys made a mistake” to “could someone explain.” Because things will still not get done, mistakes are still going to be made and people are still going to have to waste a fair amount of time on stuff that wouldn’t come up is he just did things the way he is supposed to.

      Reply
  29. Undine

    He needs to take responsibility and also close out the issue. If you raise a big red flag to a lot of folks, then it’s appropriate to include the resolution in the email thread. If the resolution is, “Nothing to see here, I cried wolf too soon, it was a donkey in a suit,” then you need to send out that email so it is part of the thread. That way, everyone knows the resolution and has it on record that issue was resolved, so when they go back to their email three months later, they don’t have to wonder how it was resolved.

    If he refuses to do that, apology or no apology, I think that is definitely actionable, because not resolving the issue on the thread leaves things hanging. Even if someone else says, “I’ve investigated, found hoof prints and a discarded suit,” it’s really helpful to have him validate the conclusion and say, “Yes, you’re right, it was a donkey in a suit.” He never has to directly say “I’m sorry” (although that would be a real plus). But not closing the loop, that has a direct impact on me as a coworker, and I think that’s something you can make a job requirement and discipline if necessary.

    Reply
  30. Observer

    By the way, if he is emailing people outside of the organization, you need to make him stop. He is absolutely going to cost you good will and possibly business.

    Reply
  31. jnsunique

    My company is trying to guide it’s culture, and one of the identified “Cultural Behaviors” is Trust. The idea is that you need to trust your colleagues. It might be worth talking to the employee how he needs to trust that his colleagues are usually right and that errors are the exception. I try to approach inconsistencies by assuming that another’s work is probably right (especially if it was put together by a team!) and try to figure out how they came to that conclusion, and I learn a lot that way. The culture stuff is a little fad-like, but at the core I think it is good. I think that it is disrespectful to accuse people of making errors the way this person is, and I’d get quite frustrated. I’m more likely to ask someone to explain it even if I think that it is an error as it is far more respectful. Then I grill them. :)

    Reply
  32. Nita

    He’s asking questions. That’s very good. If I had a nickel for every time something must have looked unclear to a coworker, but they forged ahead without asking questions, which would also cause problems down the road… The problem is his assumption that if something looks wrong to him, it must be wrong. It might help if he can be convinced to go to one person for a fact check when this happens, instead of emailing the entire team. Maybe he thinks that he must flag issues ASAP because time is of the essence, but surely by now, he’s recognizing the pattern of his “issues” usually being misunderstandings?

    Or maybe he’s doing it to look important, in which case someone ought to point out to him that he mostly looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    Reply
    1. Observer

      Actually, his problem is not his assumption. His problem is his failure to follow the basic steps of his job. Most of the supposed errors he is finding are actually due to his making careless errors that he should not be making. And the extra work that everyone has is in large part due to his not following proper procedure – which he has been informed of when asking about it.

      Reply

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