When staff screw up it's vital to stay cool

Recently I looked at how to handle making a mistake in the workplace. This week I’m going to look at how you handle it when it’s not you who has made the faux pas, but one of the staff you supervise.

Giving advice to a confused business owner about how to deal with the expensive mistake of an employee, Joan Lloyd writes on that trying to make the employee pay financially is not the answer. Lloyd says the boss could, however, give the employee less of a pay increase (or none) if there is a pattern of errors or problems. But she says punishing employees for mistakes is usually not a good practice.

“People don’t make mistakes on purpose. That’s why they are called mistakes. If you can use this as a learning opportunity, she will not make the mistake again. If you make her pay for it (something she never agreed to when she took the job) you will likely lose her and create fear in everyone else.”

She says the boss needs to paint a clear picture to the employee about what the mistake means for the business.

“Often, employees think the business makes much more money than it actually does.”

Lloyd recommends communicating with employees about the real costs of running the business (using percentages if they are not keen to use actual figures) and might find staff are more aware about managing costs and avoiding mistakes.

The boss should then ask the employee how they plan to fix the mistake and what lessons they have learned.

Lloyd says that the boss might have to partly realise he is to blame for the mistake occurring. “If this was such a costly piece of work, why weren’t you monitoring it more closely?", and "Did you delegate it without any oversight?” are some questions to ask.

Writing on the National Federation of Independent Business site, Jeffrey Moses says that creative companies should expect a certain level of mistakes if they want innovation and risk-taking.

“Of course, you can't just look the other way when mistakes are made. But you can work with employees in a way that the mistakes are not considered as something to be avoided at all costs.”

Moses writes that it is important to be quick to praise and slow to criticise staff, otherwise staff may become too cautious.

“A culture of blame and ‘gotcha’ usually leads to an uncreative bunch of employees.”

In fact, an article on says it is important to ask whether it was even a mistake.

“To check this point: First, in one sentence state briefly and clearly the mistake. Second, list the consequences resulting from the mistake. Do these objectively — be cool.”

The article suggests asking if the person has a pattern of making errors (which could point to the person being in the wrong role or being poorly trained) and whether others make similar errors (which could indicate a bigger problem).

The article suggests focusing more on how to prevent the mistake happening again rather than on who caused it.

“The way not to blame is to discover conditions which brought about the mistake and to come up with conditions to correct the situation in the future.”

It also points out not to become fixated on the mistake. “Dealing only with the mistake — isolating it from good work performances — often gives the employee an evaluation not intended by the supervisor. If it is true that ‘My supervisor only calls me in when I do something wrong’, then something is wrong.”

The article also suggests seeing the person privately, not only because it is more professional to do so but for a variety of other reasons including making it easier for the person who has made the mistake to talk more freely and avoiding making others feel uncomfortable.

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