Correcting workplace carelessness

Wednesday, June 8, 2005 at 1:00am

To err is human, but carelessness can be contagious, and employee mistakes - from assembly errors to shipping snafus to paperwork pileups - can have a real impact on your bottom line. This week's Q&A offers some practical advice on how to get your employees to wake up and shape up without getting yourself in a legal bind.

Q: I'm concerned about the number of mistakes being made by our employees lately. Everyone from managers to production line workers is messing up, and it's costing us money. What can we do?

A: First of all, you need to get your employees' attention. Hold a meeting, or if that isn't practical, send out a company-wide memo addressing the situation. Briefly describe the problem and the impact it has had on your business. Let employees know that solving those problems is going to be a top priority for the company. Then, lay out whatever policies you've decided to enact to address the situation. Of course, if yours is a union workplace, you'll need to make sure your new "get-tough" measures don't run afoul of any of the provisions of your collective bargaining agreements. In terms of the policies themselves, the best approach is to employ both a "carrot" to reward good performance and a "stick" to punish mistakes.

Q: So what would make a good carrot?

A: Try instituting an incentive bonus program on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis. You need a bonus specifically directed at eliminating mistakes, and it needs to be available on an immediate enough basis that it will have a real impact on employees' day-to-day performance. For instance, you could institute a policy that if an employee makes no mistakes (and you'll need to define what you mean by that) during the bonus period, he'll be entitled to a certain amount of incentive pay. That could be a set amount or a percentage of his income for that period, whatever is easiest for you from a bookkeeping standpoint.

Q: Now that we've got the carrot, what do we do about the stick?

A: Like it or not, you must begin disciplining employees who make careless mistakes, up to and including firing them. You might try a "three strikes" policy to address performance issues: initial warning, final warning, discharge. You must strictly and consistently enforce your policy for it to be effective. Don't play favorites - treat all employees in the same positions or categories the same way. For the sake of fairness, it's probably best to let everyone start off with a blank slate.

You might also consider conducting some refresher training after you announce your new policy. Perhaps you could hold a series of one-hour workshops or training sessions on the different issues you've had problems with. In addition to reminding your workers about the correct practices, training shows that you want to give them a fair chance to live up to your expectations. The fairness issue could become very important later if an employee who is disciplined or fired under your new policy files a discrimination charge or claim.

Q: Do we have to have the same rules for everyone?

A: It's OK to adopt different disciplinary policies for managers or other exempt employees from those you apply to nonexempt employees. It may also be all right to treat nonexempt employees differently if you have a legitimate reason. For instance, it might be OK if employees in certain positions make frequent but fairly minor mistakes, whereas a single error made by someone in another position might have a devastating impact on the company. The key is to treat employees in the same positions or categories the same way under similar circumstances. To do otherwise (i.e., firing someone you don't like after the first mistake, but giving other employees several chances after making the same kind of mistake) will open you up to claims of discrimination.

Q: One idea we thought of was to post the names of employees who make mistakes. That would get their attention, right?

A: Posting the names of employees who make mistakes could cause a serious morale problem. A strictly and fairly enforced progressive discipline policy will accomplish the same goal without publicly humiliating employees. Keep in mind that employees who feel they have been treated unfairly are much more likely to cause trouble for your company by initiating union activity, filing reports with the DOL or other agencies, or instigating lawsuits.

Kara Shea represents businesses in the area of labor and employment law in Miller & Martin's Nashville office and is an editor of M. Lee Smith Publishers' monthly newsletter Tennessee Employment Law Letter. More on human resources can be found at HRhero.com.

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