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.






Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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