Boss Allows No Mistakes

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about boss threat of firing for one mistake:

We have a new boss that does not allow room for mistakes. No one is purposely trying to make a mistake. But, one of my co-workers who is extremely busy and has much more work than can be handled by one person, has been told that if one more mistake occurs (thousands of transactions/processes, maybe 3 mistakes)they will be written up. Next mistake, terminated. We are all human and this is ridiculous. Do you have any ideas on how this can be handled?

Signed,   Busy and Worried

Dear Busy and Worried:

Thanks for sharing the concern of you and your friend. I’m going to mention some general thoughts about this subject of making mistakes and will also suggest some specific things for your friend.This is one of the most challenging issues in a workplace. Managers or supervisors are tasked with getting work done without errors, because no customer or client wants to be the recipient of bad work. Besides, unmarred excellence is the goal we all should strive for.

Employees often say that only a few mistakes is just being human and should be understood or at least not viewed as automatically leading to discipline or something as dire as termination.Most of us take a hard line about mistakes when the mistakes effect us but don’t want that same hard line taken about us when we make the mistakes. That’s just being human too! One way to consider what is reasonable as a policy about errors is to think of what was or could be the ultimate result of the mistake and could mistakes be prevented in the future.

Unfortunately, in your friend’s case, being reasonable may not be enough to change the mind of the manager. But, it might give her something to discuss with HR or even with the manager if they have a good enough history to be able to communicate about this.

1. What do the mistakes consist of and what could be or was the ultimate result?If your friend can show that the mistakes did not or would not cause serious problems and could easily be remedied without reflecting poorly on the company, she is more likely to show she should not be sanctioned or dismissed over them. If she can’t show that she may have more of a problem. Even then though, she may be able to show what she did to remedy the mistakes and that her responses were successful. Let’s look at seriousness.

*For a technician in a brake shop to make only three mistakes a month out of hundreds of repairs, doesn’t seem like much unless it is your brakes.

*A knee replacement surgeon told me that he had successfully done over two thousand knee surgeries but one mistake last year had cost his insurance company hundreds of thousands of dollars and raised his rates to astronomical amounts.

*A mistake at the pharmacy could cost a life, even though it was only one of thousands of prescriptions filled. *A mistake in a contract could cost millions of dollars.

*A few mistakes on bills could have customers complaining in person and to others about it, before they go to another company.On the other hand, there are minor mistakes that are frustrating to the employee and the manager, but not crucial. For example, making a spelling or grammar error now and then, accidentally breaking an inexpensive lab instrument every once in awhile, getting rushed and making an occasional small error in math or forgetting to forward an order in a timely way.Those may irritate someone or cost a little bit of money, but they don’t have a lasting negative effect. There are also things that are not so easy to decide about. If an employee issues thousands of refund checks or sends out thousands of bills or produces thousands of invoices and makes a few mistakes a month, almost every month, would that be a severe problem? It would depend on the policies of the company, department standards or, in this case, the rules of the manager (which probably reflect what he has been told to achieve).

So, when your friend is thinking about talking to the manager or HR or appealing an action by the manager, one thing she should consider is how to show that the mistake was minor, did not have a serious impact and was relatively easy to fix.2. The next thing to consider is whether or not the mistake could humanly have been prevented and/or if others are doing the same work without making the same level of mistakes. If there is some aspect of the work or the work environment that leads to the mistakes, maybe she can suggest some ways to reduce the problem. At the least, if she talks to the manager and lets him know she wants to reduce the errors and is looking for a solution, that might help.Think about which sounds better: “I don’t intend to make a mistake and I can’t help it if I make some now and then.” Or, “I want to find some ways to keep from making mistakes so I’ve come up with some ideas and want to see if you have any as well.”If others are doing similar work and not making mistakes, maybe your friend could talk to them about that. If everyone makes the same amount of mistakes, at least it is something to show as an explanation for how hard it is to do perfect work in that setting.

3. You mention that there is a new manager. It could be he or she has been told to get tough about errors. Or, it could be that the new manager just wants to show that he improved the work.I wonder if your friend could talk to the manager about the work and see why he has decided on this approach. Often employees and managers are each sitting with their own thoughts that, if they were shared, might help each other do the work better.Your friend could ask to talk with the manager and say honestly, “I’m really worried about the new rule you mentioned on mistakes. I like this job and I need it. But,I’m worried that a few minor mistakes made in a rush will get me fired. Is there a type of mistake you’re talking about or a reason for making that rule?”The more the manager thinks of the employee as a person with concerns and a desire to do good work, the more he is likely to want to work with her to reduce errors or even to lighten up a bit on what is considered an error.On the other hand, no matter how much a manager likes or empathizes with an employee, there may be a limit that your manager cannot go past.

One way you can help your friend is to encourage her to communicate positively with the manager. You can also reaffirm for her that, in spite of the amount of work she does, if anyone can do it perfectly, she can. Help her feel that she is doing heroic work and that you are proud of her. Maybe you can problem-solve with her about ways to double-check to eliminate errors or ways to reduce distractions so she can focus better. You sound like a great friend at work and I hope this matter settles down some as the new manager finds a balance and your coworker continues to focus on doing high quality work.If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.