15 Routes Leaders Can Take If An Employee Makes A Fireable Mistake

Expert Panel® Forbes Councils Member

Everyone makes mistakes, but some are more egregious than others, especially when they are made in a professional setting. When an employee makes a mistake that borders on a fireable offense, management is put in the difficult position of deciding how to deal with the situation.

If it was an honest mistake—a misstep or error in judgment due to a lack of essential knowledge, for example—leaders need to determine the top concern and make a plan to handle the issue in an appropriate and fair manner. Here, 15 members of Forbes Coaches Council explore alternatives to immediate termination.

Featured members share ways leaders can deal with employees who make fireable mistakes.
Forbes Coaches Council members share ways for leaders to deal with an employee who makes a fireable mistake.

1. Use The Mistake As A Learning Opportunity

Use the mistake as a learning opportunity that includes—but also goes beyond—the individual. Was there a breakdown in onboarding or developing the employee? Are there checks and balances for work completed, especially for newer employees? Are employees “safe” to ask questions and ask for help? What could the employee have done differently to avoid the mistake? Improve processes, training and leadership. – Mark Samuel, IMPAQ Corporation

2. Recognize The Interdependence

It is time for the boss to reflect on what responsibility they carry. What could have been done by others to avoid the error? The conversation should be about the failure of the group to prevent the mistake and what was learned from the error. There needs to be a recognition of interdependence, where the mistake is not an individual error but the responsibility of the entire group. – Valerio Pascotto, IGEOS

3. Consider What Happened Afterward

Analyze how the employee approached the situation after the mistake was made. Were they apologetic? Were they quick to offer their services in another way to fix the issue? Employees who show an eagerness to learn from their mistakes are extremely important to the company because it shows their integrity and willingness to improve. Show them exactly where they went wrong and what they can do to fix it. – Kimberly Olson, The Goal Digger Girl

4. Focus On The Process And The Lack Of Knowledge

When an employee makes a “forgivable but fireable” offense, there should be a focus on the process and the (lack of) knowledge and tools that led to the negative outcome. The second focus should be on others who may be committing the same mistake or who are aware of the error. Real learning can occur if the mistake is reflected on and the parties involved are encouraged to be open. – Ben Levitan, Cedalion Partners

5. Conduct An In-Depth Investigation

The boss has to handle the situation with care. Conduct an in-depth investigation of the situation and why it happened. What is the mistake’s impact on the company’s reputation and business cost? Lastly, the boss must be able to put away any positive or negative personal emotions toward the employee to perform an investigation based on facts, objectively and with empathy, considering it was an honest mistake. – Janice Lum, Arconik Coaching

6. Hold The Direct Manager Accountable

If it was not intentional, it should not be a fireable offense. If it was due to a lack of training, the direct manager should be held accountable, as training and supervising employees is their responsibility in the first place. Psychological safety is earned or destroyed in situations such as this, these are defining moments everybody can learn from, or they can serve as a warning that you are alone. – Csaba Toth, ICQ Global

7. Identify Areas For Growth And Training

It’s a leader’s responsibility to set their team up for success. When mistakes happen that fall into a “fireable” category, get clear on the bigger picture. What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? This will identify important areas of growth so that clear training/education can be offered to prevent future issues. Fair disciplinary actions may be necessary for team morale and accountability. – Christie Garcia, Mindful Choice, LLC.

8. Show Empathy Regarding Unintentional Mistakes

The top concern should be what is at stake for the company and what it means from a governance viewpoint. If a strong case for the decision (whether to fire or keep) is backed by a defensible narrative, the boss should categorically state so. The important thing is to show empathy since the mistake was unintentional. There will still be consequences, but temper them with compassion. – Thomas Lim, Singapore Public Service, SportSG

9. Adjust Consequences Based On Severity

Making errors of ignorance is a dangerous precedence to set. Depending on the severity, the consequences can be adjusted. This is also a chance to set a culture of compassion, so adjust the consequences accordingly. Make this a learning point for everyone (with compassion, and without shaming) so that the organization can do better as an entity instead of repeating the mistake. – Chuen Chuen Yeo, ACESENCE Agile Leadership Coaching and Training Pte. Ltd.

10. Consider Whether It’s A Pattern

The top concerns are setting precedence, introducing risk into the company, and whether the mistake is part of an overall pattern. Truly, leaders grow best through adversity if they use it. The best way for the boss to address the situation is to have the employee make the case for why they should be kept, what steps they are putting in place to mitigate such a situation and their learning. – Kimberly Janson, Janson Associates, LLC

11. Be Consistent In Your Approach

Be consistent in your approach, given it could be viewed as favoritism or discrimination or as you not treating others similarly. Always gain the perspective of others (HR, your boss and others) when appropriate to avoid making a decision in a vacuum. – Luke Feldmeier, Online Leadership Training – Career and Leadership Accelerator for Engineers

12. Document The ‘Mistake’ And The Correction Needed

One course of action I have found helpful is to document the “mistake” and in the document, write the correction needed, including the steps to be taken by the employee. The document would also include that a repeat “mistake” of this kind will result in termination. Lastly, a review of training in the area related to the offense would be a best practice. – Brent McHugh, Christar International

13. Understand Where It Went Wrong

My top concern would be understanding where things went wrong to determine if the shortfall in knowledge emanated from a lack of training or if that training was given but did not sink in. This is critical to understanding whether your processes are complete. After that, depending on my experience with the employee, I may offer a second “chance” with clear expectations for improvement. – Kim Neeson, Kim Neeson ˆConsultancy

14. Consider The Staff Member’s Coachability

Everyone makes mistakes. I value staff who own the outcomes of their mistake and who commit to learning from it and doing better next time. These people are imminently coachable and will grow. It’s the staff member who cannot see or does not care about how their mistake impacted others who is particularly problematic. That situation requires careful soul-searching and consideration. – Randy Shattuck, The Shattuck Group

15. Determine How The Organization Failed The Employee

The lean view would be that the manager or leader is responsible if the employee fails. The top concern for the boss must be to determine how the organization failed the employee such that they were able to infract in such a serious way. Strengthening the coaching and support for the employees is essential, as is creating a psychologically safe environment for infractions to be made visible. – Nigel Thurlow, The Flow Consortium