What are the different options when a co-worker makes a mistake?

People make mistakes. It’s part of what makes us all human. Sometimes these mistakes are genuine accidents, sometimes they are the result of not being careful enough or poor judgment. Because we all make mistakes, it is generally the best policy to accept the mistakes of others with that biblical admonishment to let he who is without sin cast the first stone. However, what happens when the mistake of a coworker has consequences for you or your organization?

The scenario I envision happens all the time. Bob and Sally take a couple of clients out to lunch and in conversation, Bob shares some highly confidential information with the client that Sally knows the partners want to keep secret. Or Bob is in charge of writing the quarterly report and inverts the numbers on the earnings report leading to a misleadingly generous accounting of profits and Sally is the only person who realizes the error. In both cases someone has made a mistake that has the potential to have far-reaching consequences for the organization. In the first case, the clients may make the confidential information public. In the second, company-wide spending decisions may be made based on inaccurate data.

Sally really has three choices for her next steps.

  1. She could remain silent: This is by far the easiest option as it requires no confrontation and no blame. However, in the situations outlined above, Sally would become implicitly guilty of Bob’s mistakes. If Sally allows the company to go forward with an irresponsible spending decision knowing that it is based on inaccurate information, she is harming the company as much, if not more, than Bob did when he failed to properly review his numbers.
    In addition, this approach gives Bob no chance to redeem himself. Perhaps Bob had no idea that the information he shared with the clients was confidential or maybe he believed that the partners would certainly make an exception and share such information with such a highly valued client. If Bob never realizes he made a mistake, he may make the same mistake again and again both harming the company and his reputation with Sally.
  2. She could talk to Bob: Often this is the best approach in a situation like those described above but it is not always easy to do. If Bob made an honest mistake, he may welcome a quiet comment from Sally that would allow him to correct his behavior in the future and ideally fix whatever damage was caused by his error.
    The hard part of this approach is that it requires Sally to confront Bob. Depending on Bob’s personality, this could be intimidating. Sally may also fear that once she points a mistake out to Bob, he will be constantly scrutinizing her work for her next screw up.
  3. She could report Bob to a supervisor: This can feel like an easier approach than talking to Bob because Sally may be able to remain anonymous and thus avoid any backlash from Bob. Insofar as working relationships go, option 2 is generally going to be the best route to go but sometimes it is necessary to get a supervisor involved. If Sally has talked to Bob several times in the past about the same issue with no change in his behavior or if Bob responds with aggression or denial, it may be wise for Sally to involve somebody else.
    As a rule, it is best to attempt to address a coworker’s mistake directly with the person who made the mistake, but, in order for this to be successful, Bob needs to be willing to accept that he made a mistake and take responsibility for making it right.

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