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Your Employee Messes Up: How Do You Respond?

Do's and don'ts for addressing workers' mistakes

Two business women looking at a laptop in an office.

​One of your workers blows a deadline for getting a report to a big-name client. Rectifying this error costs you time, causes you stress, embarrasses your department and hurts your organization's reputation.

So how do you deal with the offending employee?

With research into the mistake, empathy, an open mind and a team mentality, say workplace experts. And without jumping to conclusions, yelling or imposing  inordinately harsh discipline.

"I was talking to a group of CEOs recently when one of them told a story," said Don Rheem, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based E3 Solutions, which provides workplace metrics and manager training, and author of Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience that Drives High-Performance Cultures (Forbes Books, 2017.) "He said, 'Yesterday I got furious with one of my senior leaders because of a mistake he made. I ripped into him during our senior leadership meeting. I was so convinced the problem we were having was all his fault. And then I was sitting at my home computer when I received a notification from LinkedIn that Bob had just updated his profile, and my heart sank as I realized he might be about to quit.' "

The CEO paused and looked around at his colleagues, Rheem recalled. "I really screwed up, didn't I?" the CEO asked. "I don't want to lose Bob."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Better Ways to Address Workers' Mistakes

Managers need to remember that employees join companies, but they quit managers, often after what they consider demoralizing or unfair displays of blame and shame, Rheem said.

"That can be a major source of employee dispirit and disengagement," he said. "Anything so overtly negative is a figurative punch to the brain. The natural response would be to [perceive the blame] as a threat, which typically leads to a defensive response, or a feeling of shame, which could also trigger despondency. These responses aren't healthy or supportive to individual growth or organizational improvement."

A better response to an employee mistake, he said, would include these steps:

Don't make assumptions. "Snap judgments and assumptions of fault and blame pointing to one person are rarely accurate," Rheem said. "Managers need to begin with the conversational aperture wide open. This can most easily be accomplished in pronoun choice: 'I am curious about what we could have done differently to achieve a better outcome?' This approach, rather than 'What could you have done?' is more helpful."

Do your homework. Consider that factors beyond the worker's control may have contributed to the mistake, such as team members who didn't fulfill their responsibilities, support services—such as IT—that were not responsive, or clients who weren't communicative.

"Ask thoughtful questions, such as: 'If we did this project again, what could we do differently to change the outcome?' 'How could I have supported you and your team better?'" Rheem said. "Say that you'll get with them the following day to hear their thoughts. That can change what the employee will do after the meeting. Instead of going home and updating their resume and complaining to their spouse about unfair treatment, they are more likely to spend their time focused on what they could have done differently since they have to answer that question the next day."

Don't wait for problems to build up. "Feedback around job performance, behaviors and an employee's attitude should occur regularly," Rheem said. "It is much more effective when course corrections are given in smaller, more-frequent increments."

Recognition should also occur regularly, he said.

"We often see comments in our employee surveys for clients that go something like this, 'The only time I hear from my supervisor is when I've done something wrong. What about all the times I did something right?' It is important for managers to show balance in the way they communicate with staff. We estimate that 80 percent of the recognition employees receive is negative, which has a pervasively depressing impact on employee engagement."

Do consider the employee's track record. Does the mistake represent a pattern? Has the employee been made aware of the pattern before? Or is this a rare occurrence for a worker who is typically careful and diligent?

Do consider motivation. Some mistakes happen because an employee takes a risk by trying something new, said Jonathan A. Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City and managing principal at the Duane Morris Institute, which provides training for HR professionals. "We don't want to discourage prudent risk-taking. So you may want to acknowledge the initiative but then explain why in this case the judgment or execution was off."

Don't show your biases. There can be unconscious bias in how a manager responds to a mistake depending on the nationality, sex or race of a worker, Segal said. He uses this example: Some people believe that Asian-Americans are particularly intelligent. So when an Asian-American makes a mistake, "the person's failure may be perceived as worse than if it was the same failure by an employee who is not Asian," he said. "The employee failed to meet inflated expectations."

Do watch your language. When discussing a mistake with an employee, it's important to start the conversation by showing appreciation, Rheem said. Say something positive about the employee that relates to performance, behavior or attitude. "This appreciation needs to be unqualified," Rheem said. "You can't insert a 'but' or a 'however' because that quickly negates" the positive comment.

Neuroscience, he added, "shows us that managers should lead with curiosity. For example, 'I'm confused, help me understand why' can be remarkably effective at getting underneath a person's defenses. Some managers might consider this kind of an approach a sign of weakness, when in fact behavioral science points out how people typically lean in when someone expresses vulnerability.

"There is another significant impact when managers begin with curiosity. The feedback session is much more likely to be a two-way conversation rather than a one-way lecture rife with criticism. Questions encourage learning and growth; criticism triggers a combination of defensiveness, dejection, resistance and antipathy."

Segal suggests focusing on what the employee did wrong and not on the employee as a person.  Avoid statements such as "You did not try" or "You did not work hard enough." 

"That does not mean that the employee should be lulled into a false sense of security," Segal said. "A manager can be positive but still clear on consequences. For example: 'I want you to succeed so I want to be clear: If this kind of mistake were to happen again, your employment with us would not continue.' "

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