what to do when an employee makes a serious mistake

Assuming that you don’t employ robots, at some point you’ll have employees who make mistakes. (Although if you do employ robots, no need to read further.) Some mistakes are routine – a typo here, a misunderstood instruction there. But what do you do when a mistake is more serious?

Here are four key principles for responding to a serious mistake on your team.

1. Find out how it happened. Was it simply due to carelessness or something being overlooked? Or was there a communication issue, a training issue, or another systemic problem that led to it? Each of these matters for different reasons. Problems that stemmed from something beyond the employee’s sole control are especially important for you to know about, because they might point to an area that needs your attention. In cases like those, the mistake can be a symptom of a larger problem you need to address.

Moreover, simply asking the employee, “What happened here?” creates accountability. It signals, “I pay attention to your work, I notice when things don’t seem right, and we’ll address it when that happens.” It also has the benefit of not being accusatory; rather, it’s a collaborative approach to problem-solving.

2. If necessary, find out what’s being done to ensure it doesn’t happen again. For instance, you might want to know that your employee has changed her system to ensure she’s double checking her work in the future, or that the training materials are being updated to discuss how to prevent the type of mistake that occurred.

3. Pay attention to how seriously your employee takes the mistake. Your job as a manager isn’t to berate people for mistakes; it’s to ensure that they take them appropriately seriously and are taking steps to prevent them in the future. If your employee is already doing that, there’s not a lot more you need to do (unless the mistake is part of a broader pattern, in which case see step #4).

4. If the mistake is part of a larger pattern, address the pattern rather than the individual incident. Too often, when an employee is chronically under-performing, managers will address individual mistake after individual mistake. Instead, once you see a pattern, you should give feedback on the pattern, not these sole instances – because at that point, the pattern is the real issue. So for instance, with an employee who keeps turning in work that requires heavy editing, you might say, “I’m finding that I’m having to re-write significant portions of these reports. We’ve talked about some of them individually, but I’d like to talk about what you think might be going on more broadly.”

Doing each step above should help you build a team where employees are accountable for their work, but which recognizes that we’re also all human.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    Ha – earlier this week I had a problem with a co-worker who made a mistake programming our (real) robots. You just cannot remove people from this whole work process, even when you do have robots.

  2. anon-2*

    #5 – you forgot, AAM.

    “Make sure that a mistake actually DID happen, and you find the correct employee who caused it.”

    1. EngineerGirl*

      But an employee may not have caused it. It could be unclear directions, faulty parts, an error in software, etc. So many times managers focus on who caused the problem as opposed to what happened. Then people don’t speak up because they are scared. Asking the question “what led to this?” keeps the focus on the problem, not the person.

  3. Not So NewReader*

    Assuming the work environment is sane, most times I find big mistakes happen for more than one reason. The new hire has inferior material and does not realize. In another instance, a solid employee hits a brick wall because she was not informed of changes that were made AND she was not informed of the new compensating steps that are now necessary. It becomes a matter of drilling down through layers of events that occurred simultaneously.

    Only twice in my working life have I encounter people who have NO reaction to a big mistake. Those are the people who were out the door the quickest.

  4. Nervous Accountant*

    How much criticism is normal for a mistake? I feel like I’m constantly being berated on mistakes, from dumb but not seriously horrible (not putting postage on non-time sensitive material and it being sent back) to really seemingly inconsequential as not having a staple as straight as it should be. Either way, I’m never asked “What happened” or “why” just… “this is idiotic, retarded, what kind of shit shop did you work at before?”

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      There is no amount of berating that is normal, or, to be more accurate for an accountant, amount = 0.

      I’m sorry you have to deal with this and hope you land in a better place soon.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I would argue that no amount of criticism is normal, let alone berating because either of those gets you absolutely nowhere with most people. A mistake happened, figure out what led to it and move on. Berating and criticizing really don’t seem to add to the process in my view.

  5. soitgoes*

    Don’t be the kind of manager who claims to be open to all questions in theory but in practice is the sort of manager who is either never available or who makes employees feel stupid for asking.

    At the very, very least, tell employees in plain language if significant problem-solving is meant to be part of their official job duties. Otherwise they’re going to make weird choices about when they’re proactive and when they exhibit caution.

  6. FX-ensis*

    hmm….this is a pickle…

    I would say it depends on the severity and his or her contractual terms.

    If it cost life, then as sad/scary as it may seem, it could be a manslaughter charge. if it cost property damage, or a major financial loss, or loss of a major client, then dismissal or suspension could result (this depends on the contract of course).

    I’d say though that compassion should be afforded, as we’re human and mistakes happen, but then a good manager IMHO would listen to what caused the mistake and take action where needs be.

  7. The Maple Teacup*

    Tell the employee what the consequences are for their Serious Mistake!

    I once made a Serious Mistake with no malicious intent involved. I misunderstood the company culture and wasn’t corrected by my superior (who knew what I was doing). Got disciplined for my mistake, and was told not to worry about it further. I took my Mistake very seriously and vowed never to do something like that again. A month later I was terminated with no explaination. A crummy experience overall.

  8. BritCred*

    Can I add one?

    There was a mistake made a while back at one of the firms I worked for. It was reported to management with 3 options for solving it. Management then spent the next 3 days bitching to one another about why the mistake happened, fault, blame, impact on client relationships etc.

    Not one of them approved a solution to mitigate the mistake. That only got done over a week later.

    So: Firstly: Sort the outcome of the damn mistake wherever possible! Then deal with the blame game!

  9. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

    Our business is insanely detailed and, typically, many people touch a certain thing so that one person’s mistake can cascade and spoil the whole batch of teapots, even if that person only played a small part in the overall.

    I live and die by error cause removal.

    Always look at the process first, before the person. Don’t put your people in the spot where they have to constantly compensate for bad process, because even the best people are not going to be able to do that 100% of the time. Improve your process.

  10. CMart*

    As someone who works in the service industry, I love this little piece.

    Why? Because nowhere does it say “fire the employee immediately”, which is very often what customers demand when a service employee makes a mistake (no matter how minor). If we’re talking American/Canadian restaurant industry (where I work), add in “dock their pay” before “fire immediately”.

    In general, no one imagines or assumes that if they screw up at work that the would be terminated on the spot, and yet when they go out to retail stores and restaurants that’s exactly what they demand when their not-robot-human cashiers/servers make a mistake.

  11. MisterPickle*

    I find myself agreeing with anon-2: “Make sure that a mistake actually DID happen …” I’ve personally seen it happen that everyone gets in a tizzy over a “mistake” that didn’t actually happen. This can result in significant embarrassment.

    “… and you find the correct employee who caused it.” And it might not be an employee who caused it.

    Really, I think it’s just a matter of the proper due diligence: if someone tells you that a mistake happened, investigate it yourself and gather facts before taking action.

  12. MisterPickle*

    I personally wish I was better at / knew more about how to approach mistakes from a perspective of “let’s fix it and make sure it doesn’t happen again” when one works inside of a “blame” culture.

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