Correcting Employee Mistakes

Too many mistakes cost a company time and money. Here's advice on managing an employee whose elementary goofs have become a problem. October 2, 2007

I have an employee that is very intelligent, and only been in the cabinetmaking end for a few years. He is very capable and can do very intricate work. However, due to his lack of experience, he may produce a very difficult piece and totally ignore the basics, such as being out of square to the point of requiring a rebuild. There always seems to be something - a lost piece, etc. The last one is about a 6 hour screw-up for carpentry 101 mistakes. Should I make him re-do the piece on his own time to push him to pay more attention, or should I eat the cost, again? Right now, I need his hands in the shop. I can't afford, with the work load, to be out of the help he is, despite the screw-ups, but can't afford the screw-ups. There is great potential in him, but I inherited him and his $2.50/hour over pay when I took the job managing. I guess I know what to do, but would like some input. Any great wisdom out there?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor M:
I think you need to sit him down and explain to him what he is doing wrong, and how expensive it is for you to have to pay twice or more for mistakes. I have found that many times employees donít realize how much their mistakes cost unless it is explained. If he doesnít understand the basics, then he needs training of them. Even if he can do advanced tasks, the lack of basics will continue to hurt his performance and your pocket.

As far as making him redo on his own time, I donít know if you can make him do it, at least without resentment on his part, unless he feels badly about his mistakes. I have found that when a guy screws up on something, if he feels real bad about it, he will really try and correct it, and I am willing to eat the mistake easier than if he doesnít seem to care. No matter what happens, he needs proper training on the basics, and if he canít learn that, then he probably wonít make it in this business.

From contributor L:
Is this your only employee? Is there anyone overseeing his production? Sometimes an observant eye (from a distance) can catch mistakes before they become costly. If there are other employees, perhaps pairing him up for a short time with another more experienced worker can promote volumes of expertise. If he is on his own on projects, and continues to make mistakes, you are probably just as much to blame (you did say you were a manager) for not being on top of the situation. I've been there, done that too often in the past. Sometimes you have to take a step or two backward to move forward, especially in the case of a guy that shows great potential, but needs a primary course in the basics. I personally don't understand how he can perform intricate work and not be aware of simplicity such as squareness, etc.

At any rate, hope you can get on top of this; good employees are becoming so rare in our industry. The difficult part is trying to bring him up to speed without impairing your relationship (such as resentment) due to pointing out your costs on his mistakes. If he is as intelligent as you say, this should not be a problem. If this continues, your loyalty should be to the success of your company, not continuing to shoulder costly mistakes from carelessness or sloppy work habits.

From contributor W:

I agree that you shouldn't make him redo on his own time. You say that he is fairly inexperienced and overpaid. It seems that his problem could be a lack of confidence and trying too hard to perform fast to earn his wage. If this is the case, you have two options. The preferred one is to sit him down and explain that you are pleased with his overall work, but that he needs to slow down a bit until he gains experience and confidence. You will be way further ahead having him slow down slightly than having to do rework. Your second option is to explain to him that his quality and mistakes are not worth the wage, and give him a cut in pay. This might create resentment, so should only be used as a last resort. I have dismissed employees that were hired at too high a wage only to find out they took a job somewhere else at a much lower wage. This second option might have worked in their case.

From contributor B:
This topic comes up here periodically, and the general response runs pretty consistent. I'm in general agreement with all that has been said, but will add that I don't think you can legally have an employee work for free. As such, unless he insists on redoing something on his own time, you shouldn't even bring up the subject. If he does insist, it's pretty much your responsibility to decline the offer.

I suspect he is well aware of the basics but his full attention is on the complex details. As such, the basics get overlooked. A good technician will overcome this with experience. Once the basics become habit, they automatically get handled.

From contributor T:
You are making a newbie managing mistake - hanging onto a very poor employee because you are busy and need all the hands you can use. Get him doing something within his skill level, have the talk (make it an encouraging one), and if the problem isn't solved, start looking for a replacement. His mistakes affect everyone in that business, right? You have to do something about it.

From contributor Y:
I feel your pain. I've got one guy with me, been with me about a year. Phenomenal - when he gets to work. Domestic problems, CPS, arrests for scrapping with wife, just stupid stuff. Does all the doors, dovetail drawers, and is great at it, but may, and has, gotten cuffed and arrested on the way to work with the van I gave him impounded. Senseless.

Just hired a young guy I know, 23 years old, college grad and intelligent, for cleanup and cutting some basic drawer parts (to length with cutoff saw with stop) and machining in an automatic dovetailer. He gave up on the parts, said he didn't understand the end product. I don't mean gave up, just said he was not cutting them. I explained the end product (drawers) and included an exploded stick figure drawing of the parts. Moved off that onto cleanup. Didn't blow off any machines or move or sweep under anything. Used one hand to use broom, as the other was occupied with continually smoking. No pressure on the broom, just skipping over the top of the sawdust. When I requested he use both hands, he said he quit, as there were things people shouldn't have to do. He considered this crap work.

I think I may run an ad - alcohol and substance abuse okay. Must not have transportation. Law enforcement issues a plus. I'll probably get a flood of applicants. At least I won't get any surprises.

From contributor E:
Stop leaving him unsupervised to do work he isn't capable of?

From contributor Z:
This really appears to be a management problem to me. How can someone complete a fairly complex piece of work, and have it be far enough out of square to need to be redone, without anyone noticing this beforehand? Who is supervising this person? Who is managing the supervisor? What do you mean by "inheriting" this employee when you took over management?

How do you determine that he is overpaid by $2.50 per hour? If you have determined the wage scale, then it is your job to make an adjustment and explain this to the employee. This is not a pleasant task, but he should be able to understand why he is costing money by re-work, and accept the pay cut if he wants to keep his job and learn to do better. A good manager must find a way to deal with this situation.

The responsibility for the quality and accuracy of the product that leaves the shop rests squarely on the shoulders of those that are in the position of management, supervision and/or ownership. If things are not up to your standards, it is your job to establish those standards and provide enough guidance and oversight to maintain them. There will always be mistakes, but a pattern of problems indicates a weakness in the system.

I am not trying to be harsh, but this employee sounds like he has potential that is being stymied by a lack of proper supervision and training.

From contributor A:
Back in the days of corporate America, I used to deal with 150 call center employees. We used checklists for all the little things that seemed to be missed. I'd set down and write up a Word form. I'd list things that are common for most jobs. Case square, joints tight, all parts cut and labeled, measurements rechecked, etc. Then have a line next to each one that he checks off when that little thing is accomplished. I know it's a pain in the butt and he can just sign off on the whole sheet before he starts. If you walk by him a few times a day and ask for his checklist, then verify a few things (is he where he is on the checklist, did he do them right), it will show the importance of doing them right. Itís more a training tool than anything else.

From contributor S:
Contributor B is correct. You can't have an employee work for free. He/she must be paid at least minimum wage for every hour worked. I agree with the general consensus above. If you really think this employee has potential, then talk first, move this person to the carpentry 101 tasks to better develop basic skills, and keep a close eye on him until he demonstrates mastery of those basics. Sometimes in all the commotion of running a business, employees get moved up before they are ready even if the employee doesn't realize it. I would rather have an employee take a little longer to do it right than have to redo it. Speed comes with repetition. They can either do it right fast or wrong fast.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the responses. First of all, no free work was done or asked to be done. I wanted to see what you thought, because the owners had suggested it to me. Anyway, I have just recently been hired by this company to help put things in order, thus the comment of inheriting him. All I had to go on at first was what I was told he was capable of doing. Since this incident took place, I have learned much about this employeeís capabilities and lack thereof. So many of your comments are right in line with my beliefs. As far as this individual situation, I had him keep track of the time it took to redo the piece, yes, with supervision. Then we spoke of the time it took and the cost to the company so he could understand the need to pay attention to details. I also reemphasized to him and each of the employees that I am always available for questions of any kind, no matter how trivial they may seem.

Ultimately, having one more week on the job, I have learned much more about his and othersí abilities. Things are already flowing much smoother, the more I learn of them, and the more they realize they can rely on me for instruction, and as they see that I really do know what I'm doing in the shop.