what to do when an employee keeps making mistakes

So you’ve got an employee on your team who keeps making mistakes – maybe small ones, but they’re chronic. You see potential in the person and you’re not ready to cut your losses. What can you try to get them back on track?

This  got discussed in the comments on a recent post, and here are some of my favorite suggestions from readers.

1. Ask the mistake-maker to propose a solution

“I am a big believer in insisting the person hammer out a solution to their own mistakes: ‘Going forward, how will you endeavor to prevent this mistake from happening again?’ It’s interesting how many people will actually figure out their own plan to prevent the problem from happening again. Because they created the plan themselves they are more likely to stick to it.”

2. Help people feel the impact

“I think a person almost needs to spend time in a position that gets impacted by the mismatch or the error–to actually FEEL the consequences–for it to become real. If the address is wrong, are you getting the call from the angry customer who didn’t receive his order? If the line of code doesn’t include a closing tag, are you the one who experiences the visceral embarrassment of seeing a public-facing HTML fail on the company website? These consequences, at least to me, feel so different than a scolding or a write-up.

Some people don’t really internalize the consequences of an error because the fallout is never really theirs to deal with. To them, errors result in a reprimand or a bad grade, and that’s why errors are bad. If there’s a way to give them responsibility for FIXING the errors and dealing with the fallout, I’ll bet they’ll develop a better eye for catching them.”

3. Invest some coaching time

“Invest some coaching time being really hands-on with the person, really delving into how they’re operating, what systems they’re using, how they’re staying organized, etc. — the kind of intensive, remedial help they shouldn’t need, but being very hands-on in that regard for a week or two to see if it gets them back on track. Sometimes it does! And then you can back off and return to normal and see what happens. It’s not sustainable for you to continue being that hands-on, so the key is seeing what happens when you stop … but for some people, that will be what they needed.”

4. Checklists and simplifying

“Short term: have a second person complete the same checklist for each item – that is, not do the work, but ensure it was done. Have both people sign off at the end. Say you have 10 people doing these orders. Make two of them ‘inspectors’ who double check the work before it goes out. The amount of time and money you’ll save making sure everything is done correctly before it goes out will more than pay for the fact you only have eight people directly working instead of 10. First pass quality is a big deal.

Long term: Standardize and simplify your processes. Are there common places there mistakes happen? Could there be more computer automation? What are your difficult edge cases, and why don’t they fit within your standard processes? Are there any roadblocks to getting work done? Enough space, materials, resources, time, etc.?

The last thing you want to do is have everyone come up with ‘their own way of doing things’ with respect to repeated tasks because it’s a great way to introduce errors of all sorts down the line.”

5. Another benefit of checklists

“A benefit of using a checklist is uncovering the parts of the job that are taking up so much of your time and effort. In a job I had many years ago, I followed a set of procedures that had been given to me by my predecessor. Over time the job changed and the volume of work increased dramatically. But I continued to follow the old process. The problem was that the process had been set up to address a particular quality issue that was no longer relevant. I was spending an incredible amount of time doing work that no one else valued AND I had my nose so close to that grindstone that I never realized I could change how I did that work.

A checklist might have uncovered which tasks/outputs are important and which aren’t. What if you are producing reports that no one reads – eliminate them. Maybe you are tracking other peoples’ inputs and outputs – can you stop doing that.”

6. A culture that supports questions

“Back up trainers. Can you assign them to mentors within their peer group? Can you create a culture where people are available and people feel free to ask each other random questions during the day? I was big on telling them to ask each other, especially when it appeared that some one had a good handle on the area in question.”

7. Have a serious conversation

“Have a very serious, direct ‘this is a really serious problem and it could result in us needing to let you go, but I think you have the ability to excel if you figure out how to address this one area’ conversation — because sometimes people just aren’t taking it seriously enough and don’t believe it’s that big of a deal, and you have to help them understand that it is.”<

8. And after it all…

“Make sure you’re regularly following up – it’s easy to have an intensive one-time event that blows by and then people go back to their bad, old habits.”

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Jules*


    One thing I would like to remind is that some people are expected to deliver at such fast speed that they are prone to making mistakes. Supervisors should also make sure that the time given to complete the assignment is reasonable.

    1. A Nonny Mouse*

      YES. I love my boss to death, and he is a great person to work for. But I have to remind him that when he asks me (literally, quite literally) thirty seconds after he’s asked me to do something whether it’s done, that it’s probably not done, and that if he wants it done right, he needs to let me work on it first. The other day he asked me to scan a document and email it to him, and just seconds after he heard the scanner stop, he asked where the email was… not thinking about the fact that I first have to get it from the scan drive, save it, reduce the file size so that it will send, and then prepare the email…

      1. Jules*

        My least favorite boss from my first job likes to tell me, “It only takes 5 minutes…” Oh, the late nights I had pulled before I called him out on that.

        1. Jen RO*

          “Five f**king minutes” became one of my team’s catchphrases when one of our boss’s quick tasks took several days. We’ve since learned to challenge his assessments when they don’t make sense.

    2. Helka*

      This is a really good point! When I came on with my current department, our productivity was great but our error rate was abysmal. The manager at the time really put pressure on people to up their quality, and we saw enormous improvement… but then management was stuck wondering why everyone had slowed down so much.

      Hmm. HMMM.

        1. JM in England*

          +1 KerryOwl

          Used a similar approach on a former boss that called me slow and said I had to work faster. I replied that I could but with a corresponding drop in quality! Incidentally, in that job, I may have been slow but had one of, if not the, lowest error rate……………

    3. SophiaB*

      This is my issue right now. My team went from five to three to just me. I am not a robot. I am doing the best I can. I’m completing nearly 200 tasks a day. But I do sometimes get things wrong, and when I do, it’s all I ever hear about.

      You have to make sure you keep things in context and make sure you understand the reason for the mistakes. There’s a big difference between careless and overwhelmed, and depending on your set-up, it’s not always obvious at a glance.

    4. JAL*

      I agree! I have a good professional relationship with my boss (I tend to lean into assistant manager roles at times), and she trusts me to point out errors in our process. Today she asked me if the time we’re expected to produce at task was reasonable. I was honest and told her an extra 3-5 minutes to produce would make all the difference and she took it seriously.

    5. Willow+Sunstar*

      This isn’t always possible, though. It depends on the industry. When dealing with perishable goods, very often your deadlines are rush and you cannot wait forever to do things or you will have many upset internal customers on your hands.

  2. NJ Anon*

    I had an employee at a former job who kept making math errors. I couldn’t figure it out because she was not only great in other areas but had an adding machine that she used. Then I drove with her and, when she almost got us killed, realized that her vision was bad! In her culture, glasses on women were not considered attractive. I told her that I would only support her for a promotion if she went and got her eyes checked. Low and behold, she needed glasses, LIKED the glasses and her mistakes stopped. Needless to say, she got her promotion!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      NICE catch on that. I had one person who was functionally illiterate. Since our work was mostly physical it took me almost a year to figure it out.

    2. Alter_ego*

      That reminds me of how often, when a child has speech delays, the parent immediately freaks, because they assume a neurological issue, but the first thing a doctor does is check their hearing. It isn’t always the first thing you think of.

    3. I'm a Little Teapot*

      One of my aunts was legally blind, but this never occurred to any of her teachers when she was a child…they just told her she wasn’t understanding lessons because she was “slow,” which she took to heart and believed.

  3. BRR*

    I want to add that often times employees who make mistakes are treated as problem employees (which to a certain extent is true because there is a problem) but some are horrified by mistakes while others don’t care. I’m on my second professional job after being fired from my first due to some mistakes combined with horrible management. I have some job ptsd so while I admit I need to get over it I get terribly upset at any little mistake because I’m concerned I will be fired even though I have great manager who handles things the right way versus a surprise firing. But still as of right now I need a gentler hand than my colleagues. That doesn’t mean I can’t handle a critique, but I’m horrified if the quality of my work slips versus those who just don’t care.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      A good boss will help you understand the size of a mistake.

      Confusingly, some mistakes are HUGE, but if they are caught right away and the employee does not make the same mistake again, the whole thing blows over and no one even remembers.

      I have had bosses that would chuckle and relate a story about their HUGE mistake and I can see they survived so will I. I don’t think anything takes away the Bad Boss Terror, but time and new experiences with a new boss. can be kind.
      Also get some reading material on toxic boss and workplaces. Knowledge is power.

    2. HR Manager*

      Yeah, I used to work in financial services and depending on the gain/loss of a mistake there (that affected investments), one mistake could be fatal. One poor dude made a mistake that cost the company 100k. Ouch! He didn’t get fired, but he got one serious reprimand and warning. Magnitude and scope matters.

      1. Cassie*

        I had a coworker who cost the dept over $50K because of a mistake she made (and subsequent lack of follow-up). Her boss just glossed over, which is so wrong. If it’s an honest mistake, we still have to figure out what went wrong so we can prevent it in from happening in the future.

    3. S*

      Oh my goodness, yes. I had a supervisor in the past who treated every single mistake like it was the end of the world, and although I have since moved on, I know that I stress out more about my mistakes (however small) because of it.

      1. suzy*

        Me too and I test out at 98% accuracy. Minor and honest mistake that cost the company nothing and are easily fixed. That if left alone you correct yourself should be no big deal. But some managers expect perfection. Which is ridiculous they make plenty of errors their selves.

  4. Ali*

    I am the employee making a bunch of mistakes, and I can’t say enough how badly I feel about the situation. I’m on a performance plan and doing everything I can to improve, and my bosses are finding things I’m doing right, but ultimately I’m just not meeting their standards. It can be a pressure cooker environment, as we’re issued progress reports/reviews every month normally, but I’m now in meetings every two weeks.

    I wanted to have the right attitude when I got my PIP. I told my boss I would take it seriously and treat it like my wake-up call, but I’m still not up to par. I’m now noticing the gap between the job I was promoted from and the title my promotion gave me, and I wish now I had never accepted the promotion. I just never felt fully comfortable in the new role, and now I might let go from the place I’ve worked for almost five years. If I get fired, that’s going to be really tough to explain, even though I know I have to take responsibility for what happened. It sucks to be trying hard and your best still isn’t good enough for management.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      How recent was the promotion? Is there any chance to go back to the old job? If you were good at that, it might be worth asking about moving back to a job like that, or moving elsewhere in the company where you might do better. If you were known as a good worker until you got this promotion, they might prefer keeping you in a different capacity over getting rid of you. But do they know that you’d consider that? (If you would consider it.)

      1. Ali*

        It’s been two years. I would consider doing this, but ultimately I am job searching to go to another company. I actually have an interview tomorrow, and right now, I’m just relieved that I’m still employed so I don’t have to tell the hiring manager that I was fired.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      This so sucks. I hope you can get out of this draining situation soon.
      I would explain it by saying “I was promoted. It became apparent after a while that it was a bad fit for me.”

      ONLY if pressed I would say “My new position had me focus on X and Y, which I do not excel at.” And I would re-direct the conversation to the New Opportunity and how my particular skills could help the employer who is interviewing me.

    3. C Average*

      This sounds really tough. I’m sorry you’re going through this, and hope a different opportunity will come through for you.

  5. Raining Tree*

    Thanks for posting this. At my last job, they did everything the opposite of what you’re suggesting. What I really liked (ha ha) was how they’d say “don’t be afraid to ask questions,” and then on my review it would say, “Needs to take more initiative/not ask so many questions.” WTF?
    I could go on and on but I’m really glad I’m not working there anymore.

    1. Iro*

      Me too! Except mine said “*Jane Doe’s* thirst for knowledge can sometimes come across of as aggressive. She needs to work on that. ”

      Well thanks manager. Instead of putting “Jane Doe needs to better assess when she can ask questions in a meeting so as not to slow down department summaries” you instead put some crazy vague personality based feedback in my PUBLIC performance review. All because you thought I was asking too many questions but you didn’t want to dare say “don’t ask questions”.


  6. Callie30*

    I want to echo and expand on Jules comment. While some situations stem from the employee simply not having attention to detail, etc., managers also need to see if their management styles are effective and fair – when it comes to appropriate time to get the task done, how Staff are treated, listening to Staff and what items they may need to get tasks done.

    I have a boss that often seems to expect that you read her mind and makes a lot of incorrect assumptions about her Staff. She often gives deadlines that are unrealistic (sometimes the next day when it involves corresponding with other companies and their steps/protocols) and then proceeds to get angry when tasks aren’t done on her timeline. She also often times won’t answer questions that are critical to getting a task done and will postpone meetings and have little communication when it’s needed.

    I suppose my point is the manager needs to LISTEN to the employee and also look at themselves to see if they are being fair and providing what’s needed to their Staff, in order for them to get their job done.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot*

      Ugh. You have my sympathy. I’ve also worked for people who expected me to read their minds…it’s an awful experience. Usually it means the person had the same assistant for years, who got to know them very well, and they’re angry at Old Assistant for leaving and angry at New Assistant for not being Old Assistant.

  7. Willow+Sunstar*

    I have a co-worker like this. My work friends have told me that he seems mentally slow. Which is ok, if he can do the job, but most of his mistakes could be prevented by him simply paying more attention to what he is doing. I have attempted to talk to him about paying more attention and taking more time to do things if necessary. He also frequently asks questions that are covered in the training documentation, which I have pointed him to repeatedly, to no avail.

    The other problem is that he is expected to cover for me when I am away. My boss the director (in the company I work for, our directors are our bosses regardless of whether we are managers, though most appoint a middle-manager to delegate for them, he didn’t) tells me I need to delegate this guy stuff to do. Fine, but it’s data entry for item set up at a grocery store firm, and I am responsible for making sure it’s perfect. Also, my workload gets rather heavy some days and I do not have hours on end to either a. sit with the mistake-making coworker or b. fix all of his errors. He has done things like classify apple juice under tropical fruit and cranberries under potatoes.

    So what am I supposed to do? They won’t get rid of the guy. I am treated as if it is my fault if he screwed up because I have been at the company longer, even though I am not his boss. I have no choice but to give him my work that he will screw up on if I do not take precautions like cleaning up the screwed-up forms for him.

    I have tried talking to my boss about the issue of his chronic mistakes, and the boss’s response was give him more to do. Ok, but mistake guy frequently complains that he is too busy to do it. (His workload should not take him as much time as it does to do things.) When he does that, I forward his response to the boss. Also, my job is such that everything is rush, so it cannot wait for more than a day or so to get processed. And mistake guy also has a habit of starting things, not finishing them, and not telling me he didn’t finish them, so I cannot trust him.

    Basically, I am looking at never taking a day off until mistake guy either gets fired or leaves of his own free will, or waiting until I can look for another job within the company, which is not for another 6 months. At Christmas, I took off 2 days and he screwed up all but 1 thing I did. It was a 2-hour clean-up effort on my part to fix his mistakes, all of which could have been prevented. I am documenting every major clean-up in a Word file on my hard drive, just in case. Additionally, there were several vendors to set up in the system he didn’t do, so I got and had to rush them. So the boss knows there is an issue, but is choosing not to do anything about it right now.

    1. Reliability Engineer*

      One advice for you, try not to escalate the issue to the director. instead try to solve it. take it as a challenge for you to deal with this “mistake guy”. If this is hopeless, escalate it to the director with proposed doable solutions.
      I wonder how is life going so far with Mr MG :)

  8. ILI*

    Hello, I have a question. If a company is making an internal investigation on a former employee, and this employee made mistakes that the company now may be facing a law sue, is this employee protected? Is he legally accountable? What are the rights of the employee? What is the best way for the employee to act? Please, answer soon

  9. Reliability Engineer*

    One common thing here is almost all of the above commenters complain their bosses.
    I bet almost all of our complaints with bosses are resolvable when we just “talk about it”
    Do whatever is requested from you, if for some reason you feel it is unfair or difficult, then make him convinced to go your way instead. never stand in the middle.

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