Work advice: How to handle an employee who keeps making basic mistakes

Q: I’m in charge of fundraising at a small nonprofit. One of my supervisees needs improvement in working independently and producing higher-quality work. He sends me material that he clearly has not proofread or checked. For example, he’s supposed to cross-check any mailing list we generate with the “no solicitations” database and eyeball it for other errors — but we almost sent a letter to a donor who was clearly marked as deceased. He has also drafted communications to donors with multiple typos.

He has been in his role for over a year. Mistakes have been pointed out previously in a “please note this for the future” way. Yet they continue. Do I need to be more forceful? Any other suggestions? I would like to keep this employee, and I believe he has potential. But I need for him to engage his brain before simply passing things my way, and I’m not sure how to convey that politely.

A: For some people, simply having their mistakes pointed out is all the motivation they need to prevent them from happening again. For others, “please note this for the future” translates to “not immediately important” and vanishes from memory. It’s possible your employee falls into that latter category. Or he could just be operating under the assumption that fast work takes priority over polished work, and everything he has done so far has been good enough. If you have let a year’s worth of feedback opportunities pass without telling him otherwise, it may come as a surprise to him that he is not performing up to standard.

You can have a conversation now about taking his work to the next level. But it’s probably more efficient to start retraining by having him fix his own mistakes. No need to be forceful, just consistent. As soon as you catch the first couple of typos or an invalid name, send it back and ask him to check for more. If he fixes only what you point out, but leaves other errors, repeat as needed until you receive a clean copy.

Yes, this change in dynamic will probably be slower than just continuing to fix all the mistakes yourself — at first. Start setting deadlines for assignments a few days before you actually need them, knowing that they will be a first draft rather than a finished product.

It’s also possible he is engaging his brain as much as he is capable of, and you need to find ways to make your processes more goof-proof:

• Have him and a peer cross-check each other’s work.

• Give him a checklist of crucial items to confirm for every project: names, spell-check, living status.

• Look for technological solutions to automate tedious but important tasks, such as generating clean mailing lists.

If all else fails, it may be time to look for different duties that play to his strengths, or ones where mistakes won’t affect donors. I realize nonprofits can’t often afford to be picky, but having someone in a job who creates more problems than he solves is hardly better than doing it all yourself.

Q: I’m a volunteer at a state park. When the place is fully staffed, there are 30 employees. For many years, the staff and volunteers were quite close, sharing ambitious work projects and meals prepared on the grill. But now, one new park employee, who’s responsible for logging volunteer hours, has told us that volunteers are not allowed to talk with park management unless she’s present. Any emails or texts must include her. This seems unnecessarily restrictive and counter to everything I have experienced in team building. Is it even legal? Do you have any suggestions for how to address this issue?

A: Two words: malicious compliance. Include her in texts and emails, no matter how mundane the topic. Whenever someone from management asks you a question, either tell them “I have to run that by [Liaison],” or call and ask her to join the conversation.

The beauty of this is that it works regardless of whether her demands are ridiculous or legitimate. If she’s overreaching, compliance is the fastest way to irritate the people with authority to overrule her. And if she has cause for her demands — preventing abuse of volunteer time or adhering to safety rules, for example — compliance will ensure the rules do their job. It’s quite possible those “unnecessarily restrictive” rules are the result of an incident your organization wants to keep from happening again.

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