What to do when employees make mistakes

In 1711, the English Poet Alexander Pope penned the now famous line: “to err is human, to forgive, divine”.

It’s obvious Pope never owned or operated a small business.

To make mistakes is, unfortunately, all-too human and all-too common. Employee errors can also be all-too costly to businesses, especially if they affect customers or the business’s reputation. And if the same mistakes continue to occur, forgiveness can be hard to come by, no matter how divine.

While forgiving an employee for losing your company’s most important customer may not top the list of what you’d really like to do, losing your temper – and potentially losing what may have otherwise been a great employee – shouldn’t be your first line of action.

There are more productive routes. Here are some better ways to deal with mistakes that may be more positive in the long run.

Don’t assume. Human nature makes us all too quick to jump to the worst conclusions. Before you immediately judge and convict, take a breath and find out what exactly is going on. Your employee may have made a mistake, but other contributing factors, like confusing communication from a client or poor team back up, may have also had a hand. Get the facts first.

Think about motive. Maybe your employee took a risk by trying something new. Certainly no one’s happy with mistakes, but showing ingenuity is a good thing and risk-taking – careful, responsible risk taking – shouldn’t be discouraged. Talk it through to see how it could have been handled better.

Use this as an opportunity for learning . There’s a reason they’re called growing pains – often, learning hurts! Learning through mistakes may be the hard way, but it can be the best way (as long as no one’s burned down the store or gotten you arrested, of course). Take a look at the big picture, find out your employee’s point of view, and work together to discover new solutions to prevent further mistakes. You might even learn a thing or two yourself in the conversation. Adapt what you learn into your training process.

Have a policy in place that includes accountability. It’s important (and to your benefit) to coach good employees through mistakes when they make them, but it’s dangerous to your business if mistakes become chronic. Create a policy that communicates to employees their responsibilities in the face of mistakes as well as potential repercussions.

If mistakes do keep happening, document them. When all else fails and you need to take disciplinary action, it’s important you have factual information at hand and you’re not trying to recall incidents after the fact.

When documenting employee behavior, keep this in mind:

· Don’t be subjective or judgmental. Instead of using words like “lazy”, use concrete examples that stick to the facts.

· Focus on the behavior, not the person. This is no place for your personal opinion on an employee or his or her personality traits. In fact, doing so may be deemed discriminatory, depending on what you’re saying. Again, stick to the facts and the incident(s).

· Never say never. Avoid using words like “always” or “never”, which likely exaggerate the incident or behavior you’re documenting. If your disciplinary action is challenged, the language you use in your documentation could call your credibility into question.

· Include suggestions to correct the problem, set a timeline and clearly explain the consequences if the employee doesn’t take steps to address the problem.

The fact is, most mistakes happen, well, by mistake. But you can be intentional in how you address them. You may just create wiser employees and a stronger team. And make no mistake: that’s good for business.





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