How to Respond When an Employee Makes a Major Mistake

by Chris Rhatigan on Oct 12, 2016 8:00:00 AM

Employee mistake

Strong leaders have a bright line on what they will and wont tolerate. But what about when an otherwise hard-working employee makes a big-time error? We’re not talking about showing up to a meeting five minutes late; we’re talking about something that results in losing a client or pitching a project that fails.

Good leaders allow their employees to make mistakes. After all, making errors is inherent if you want to create an environment that values innovation. Making errors is human, and even your best employees will make one at some point.

However, simply allowing mistakes isn’t a management strategy. When an employee makes a major mistake, it’s time to ease their fears and look for ways to get the most out of them going forward. Here are five questions you should ask yourself when an employee makes one of those errors:

01. How did the mistake happen?

Asking the employee how the mistake happened is a good first step. It shows that you’re paying attention to their work and that you expect them to do their job well. This shouldn’t turn into a blame game, but instead be part of a learning process.

Getting to the bottom of the problem is important. Was the error a momentary lapse for a usually careful worker? Or was it the result of a larger systemic problem? Investigating the issue thoroughly is a must.

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02. How is the employee responding?

Good employees will reflect on how the error happened and take steps to correct it in the future. Managers can help the employee through this process.

An employee who owns the mistake and learns from it is the kind of person you want on your team. If an employee isn’t taking the matter seriously, then you need to have a conversation with them.  

03. Is the mistake part of a larger problem?

It’s one thing if the mistake is the result of a temporary lapse of judgment. It’s quite another if the error demonstrates a bigger problem.

When a major mistake happens, this is a good time to evaluate your systems. Is there a gap in training? Are the lines of communication open? Often mistakes aren’t isolated to just one employee.

04. Is the mistake part of a pattern?

One mess up every so often is to be expected. But if the employee makes chronic errors — even small ones — these add up over time. Employees who are routinely careless or can’t be bothered to do things right need to be corrected. By allowing consistent mistakes without any response, you communicate to that’s acceptable to do sub-par work.

Employee mistakes


05. Do employees feel comfortable taking risks?

The flip side of this is that employees need to know that it’s OK to try something new. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but a necessary one for successful businesses.

When your team takes risks, it means that they’re not accepting the status quo. This is mission critical for companies that want to compete in today’s challenging business environment. Sloppy work is one thing, but taking a risk that could have long-term dividends is another. It’s important to separate these two kinds of mistake.

One thing is guaranteed: your employees (and you!) will make mistakes. Those mistakes will, at times, impact your bottom line. It’s how you respond to those mistakes that counts.



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This post was written by Chris Rhatigan

Chris Rhatigan is a freelance writer and editor. He is a former newspaper reporter for The New Haven Register and The Iowa City Press-Citizen. He enjoys playing old video games, studying (and trying to speak) Hindi, and walking his dog on the local trails. He lives in India.