They're all gonna laugh at me
April 27, 2011 10:08 AM   Subscribe

Is blunt criticism a warning for being fired? I work in a small office where 3 mistakes (mainly numerical errors) I made have been called embarrassing in a 5 month period. This is not a financial sector job. Yes I make more than 1 mistake a month, but what's bothering me is that this specific word has been used by the 3 people I work with most.

I've never had anything like this sort of criticism before but never been responsible for so much. Imagine: remembering various laws and costs of doing business in 8 states on projects due within days of each other. I cried yesterday and in the past months due to the stress and the overwhelming "I don't fit in/ job is different than described" feeling.

I would NEVER describe the mistakes they've made as embarrassing even when they were. Any way for the low man on the totem pole (me) to have them simply correct mistakes rather than say " Eww, that's embarrassing." This is making me avoid getting help from these otherwise nice people for work issues. Mostly interested in those who've been in the same situation.
posted by Freecola to Work & Money (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
We can't know. If you're asking whether or not anyone has been told (or told someone else) that their performance is "embarrassing" outside of the context of an impending termination, then yes, absolutely. I've been on the receiving end, and on the transmitting end, of that message. I've also used "unacceptable." I have never fired anyone--but sometimes you need to draw a sharp line about performance.

Clearly, they're trying to tell you that you cannot make that mistake anymore. It does not necessarily mean that you're on the chopping block. However, if you internalize this comment and withdraw, continue to make mistakes, never ask for help, that will not be good for you.

You might want to give further thought to whether this is the right job for you. Leaving aside your performance, is this a job you want?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:20 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

It certainly could be. It may not. In any case, that many warnings is a very significant warning sign.

...remembering various laws and costs of doing business in 8 states on projects due within days of each other...

If the problem is workload, you need to talk this over with someone, preferably your immediate boss. If they haven't had a discussion with you on how to improve your work yet, then you need to go to them to sort this out. Quickly. You may need to improve, but it could also be that you need to reduce or shirt your workload. In any case, the sooner you address this problem the better.

If they blow you off or are unreasonable about it, consider finding a position with more sane supervision, if possible. The situation you are in is likely not sustainable for the long-term, both for your own health or for your continued empoyment.
posted by bonehead at 10:23 AM on April 27, 2011

At my job, we measure the seriousness of the mistake by the amount of money it costs the company (a nonprofit publishing company owned by a Jesuit university). For example, a proofreader was not fired for an error that cost $1,000 to fix. Reprints costing more than $5,000 have not cost the culprit her job.

But when another proofreader (yes, we use them up like tissues) made an error that cost $18,000 to correct, she was let go. It's a matter of scale.

When I make an error, or one of my people does, it's embarrassing. I feel stressed a lot of the time and I often cry at my desk. I found out after she'd gone that the fired proofer felt we were all against her, that she never fit in, and she hated to ask for help because she viewed it as a sign of weakness.

I'm assuming you're doing some kind of sales-use tax/SOX kind of work, which I know can be pretty punishing. Give yourself a break. It's important to be careful, but just as important to be your own best friend. Can you cultivate a relationship with one coworker? Maybe pick the easiest to get along with person in your department and discuss this with him or her?

The perspective you would get from someone close to your position might be valuable. More so than people on the Internet who don't have the benefit of knowing your company culture and whatnot. The ability to ask for help is a skill worth cultivating it. I'm not saying that I have mastered it. Far from it.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 10:24 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a copy editor, so when I make mistakes they're right there on the printed page for all to see.

So yes, I get hauled into my boss's office and told how embarrassing it is to have let the error make it into print. It is shaming, but it's not a firing offense.

Are you losing money for your company, or is it just a detail that can be easily fixed?
posted by vickyverky at 10:25 AM on April 27, 2011

Everyone makes mistakes at a job. I’ve had some jobs (especially in my younger years) where I was told to be more careful, to jobs where people loved the final produce – over time I have come to believe that it is not just because of a person, but also the environment. I’m not quite sure where you are working and the exact conditions (I could be wrong but are these tight deadlines? Do you have a fact-checker or procedure in place before something in sent out? Is this a startup?) . I am also addressing this from the perspective that I usually write documents, sometimes a lot, under tight time contstraints. Here are things that I think that you could do or you could get your workplace to do with you. I really believe that it is unfair for everyone to judge you if it is a mistake a month, but how can they collectively solve the problem if it reflects the company?

For yourself:

• Are there similar mistakes that you make over and over again (you mentioned a number). Perhaps make a checklist of things that you will check before you hand it to the next person.

• Tell everyone that you need an extra day or 2 days to finish the product – project manager? Supervisor? Seriously, this is when work is horrible and it is no one’s fault, but if you give everyone adequate time to review it, it will be much, much better. Build it into the timeline.

• Do you recognize what you tend to do over and over again? Do you have a colleague that you trust? Swap the final paper or document (you do the same for him or her)/each person agrees to review a number of whatever is on the checklist.

• Go talk to your supervisor with a list of things that you think will improve what you are sending out (say what the team is sending out, not you in particular) – include some of the above (timeline, fact-checker or peer reviews it).

I don’t know if you can do this last part, but if you can – ask your colleagues to stop with the “embarrassing” comment; everyone is trying their best, let’s work on a solution, and together it will be a great final product/document produced by a team.

We can’t tell if it is or is a warning – I would suspect not unless it comes from a manger and in a meeting, but we don’t’ know. However, if you fix the problem (and this should probably occur for all documents), I think they may/would view it differently.
posted by Wolfster at 10:28 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes I make more than 1 mistake a month, but what's bothering me is that this specific word has been used by the 3 people I work with most.

If it was a warning from being fired, it would probably be from one person (your manager) and it would probably be explicitly phrased more as "your performance needs to start improving." Possibly in some sort of formal review setting.

I would NEVER describe the mistakes they've made as embarrassing even when they were

This may just be a matter of politeness levels between you and your coworkers. Many people would in fact use "embarrassing" in a professional context to describe a coworker's mistake that they consider to be embarrassing, whereas other people may avoid directly criticizing coworkers whenever possible.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:30 AM on April 27, 2011

You might find this thread useful: How do you deal with making mistakes?
posted by John Cohen at 10:46 AM on April 27, 2011

At my job, I am free to make any number of mistakes, and performance is really judged by how you "own" the mistake, and how you clean it up, and how you do not repeat the same mistake twice.

But if you make a mistake and then lie about it, you are pretty much out the door.

This is one of the reasons I love working where I do.
posted by Danf at 10:48 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am not a detail oriented person, but have done a lot of detail oriented jobs, which have resulted in some 'embarrassing' errors. I got much better about avoiding those mistakes as years went by, but the key thing is that at some point I had to say to myself that I'm not a detail-oriented person, sometimes I work too fast and that causes errors, and I am prone to multi-tasking without always saying to myself 'is this a situation where multi-tasking is appropriate or is this a situation where I'm going to screw up something because I'm multi-tasking?'

So once I kind of understood myself better and realized that there was, in fact, a problem and I was the cause of it, I started getting better at avoiding situations where I was likely to make a mistake (answering email while working on a report, for example); or just feeling sort of over-caffeinated, panicky, and rushed. Then I got much better at my own error-checking and workflow habits.

Oddly, this all makes me a little more critical about other people's mistakes, because I have to work so hard to avoid my own. That said, I'm fortunate that I'm in the sort of job where if I or anyone else screws something up, it's most likely I can have the attitude of 'we all make mistakes sometimes' as opposed to 'I just underestimated the budget for this project by $500K. I think I need to go find someplace to be sick now.'

As far as the use of the word, there's sometimes institutional cliches and that might be one in your organization, because the VP says it or whatever.

Also, while it might not be the best line of work for you, there aren't a lot of lines of work where at some point there's not something detail level to screw up on, so you might as well try to find something useful about the experience.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:50 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Great advice overall. My work is basically technical writing, the errors are things like mislabeling units of measurement and other things that won't greatly affect costs on million dollar projects.

If they simply said, "That's a mistake it should be x" no problem. "Embarrassing" and a few looks of annoyance makes me feel that they were desperate for anyone and that I'm a disappointment overall. Last person left but seems to be on good terms.

I've never felt so drained before and I've worked other jobs while attending undergrad and grad school. This is due to workload and the fact that almost NONE of their processes are written down. I'm the new person in anew industry and I have to gather information on the fly rather than consult a handbook, which I'm working on.

It's not a good fit given the workload, I refuse to work more than 60 hours a week anymore for the pay and lack of benefits. Definitely exploring other work options. I am absolutely not oversensitive to plain critiques and never received a bad performance review (but plenty of correction) in other work.
posted by Freecola at 10:53 AM on April 27, 2011

Based on your follow up the problem is not the word they use but the fact that you feel overworked and undervalued, that you don't think your errors are a big deal and that you don't like your current job as a result. So get a new job, the word they use if fine, the role seems to be a bad fit for you.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:09 AM on April 27, 2011

My work is basically technical writing, the errors are things like mislabeling units of measurement and other things that won't greatly affect costs on million dollar projects.

Honestly, I am sympathetic to your employer's use of the word embarrassing, given that. Mislabeled units are nothing to sneeze at.

They clearly are taking advantage of you with this inappropriate workload but you cannot, as a professional, let yourself be put in this position and simply deliver sub-standard product. You have to take a stand and say that you cannot work those kind of hours and deliver a quality result.

If they then are unwilling to change anything then you have to choose using a variation on the classic saying: cheap, fast, correct - pick two. Though you need to substitute "reasonable workload" for "cheap." Personally I'd miss deadlines before delivering junk but one way or the other you need to be the one to put your foot down.

It sucks that your employer is fucked up but I'm sad to say it's not that rare. Don't let them drag you down by turning you into someone who accepts doing lousy work. I've been in differently fucked up situations and my experience is that the people who get walked on the most are the ones who stand up for themselves the least. That said, they weren't places that were good for anyone, no matter their attitude. I'd be looking if I were you.
posted by phearlez at 12:42 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

To avoid these sorts of errors, you have to be pretty methodical. Ask your supervisor for assistance developing a process for checking your own work. I find it quite difficult to copy edit my own work, but I do find that if I wait a week or 3, errors are more visible. People get good at work with practice, and also by learning the tips, tricks and techniques that are known to work.

As far as the criticism goes, it always hurts, but you can help yourself by using it as an opportunity to learn. Also, being seen to use criticism to improve will help people respect you. Some work environments are more blunt than others; you have to decide if the work is what you want to do, and if you can thrive in the environment. Sometimes, it's just a bad fit, and sometimes, people are assholes, to be avoided.
posted by theora55 at 1:40 PM on April 27, 2011

Is it possible that you don't see them as embarrassing because you don't have an intuitive grasp of the material yet? For instance, if I wrote that the cat weighed 40 tons instead of 40 pounds, I'd be pretty embarrassed. Whereas if I wrote that the city used 10,000 acre-feet instead of 10,000 gallons of water, and someone corrected me, I'd be like "huh. I guess that's... a lot more?" If you're doing a lot of work in one subject (water policy), you might try to take a training to gain a more instinctual feel for some of the details.

Either way, I too am somewhat sympathetic to their position, but it also sounds like your managers are handling it in a harsh way. People do make mistakes even under the best circumstances. You may or may not have a problem on your hands, but if you want to be sure to keep your job, I would try to develop a system or two for not making that mistake and discuss them with your supervisor. Don't let the fact that they're not being good trainers or kind correctors cause you to resist making improvements. When I wrote technical reports, I would do the final draft of the text itself, then take off my writer hat, put on a fact-checker hat, go back through with a highlighter, flag every fact I needed to fact check, and highlight them with a different color when I knew they were right. The tables got checked twice. Anyway, I'm sure you can develop some system that helps you reduce the number of errors that slip by you.
posted by salvia at 4:07 PM on April 27, 2011

Something slightly weird is going on if three different people all used the word "embarrassing..." Very likely they have had a conversation about your work where they agreed errors like this were embarrassing to the company.

Does that mean you are on the path to getting fired? That's a stretch. My best guess is that your coworkers think you don't seem concerned enough by the mistakes, and are trying to alert you that these are not mistakes an experienced employee should be making.

That is, if I had a new coworker who was making frequent errors and was mortified every time, I'd probably be supportive and say "you're new here, give it time, try doing XYZ." But if every time I found a mistake my coworker breezily said "good catch," didn't seem interested in figuring out how it happened, and turned back to checking Facebook, I'd be concerned.

Don't focus on the mistakes, focus on the process you use and why you made the mistakes. If something like this happens again, have a follow-up conversation with the coworker, share the steps you are taking to make fewer mistakes, and generally act like it's a big deal to you. If you do that, I doubt the errors themselves will hold you back.
posted by _Silky_ at 5:48 PM on April 27, 2011

remembering various laws and costs of doing business in 8 states on projects due within days of each other...

I'm a career free-lancer, and I have multiple clients at the same time. I never try to keep stuff in my head. The rate for one client from a vendor will differ from the rate another gets, based on circumstances. If you're trying to just keep all these laws and figures on tap, in your brain--it's not likely that you can really do it, especially if you're new at this field.

Can you make up a cheat-sheet for each project? Then, when someone asks you for a number on the fly, you excuse yourself to check the exact information. Having someone wait a second gives you the chance to get the right information and not be embarrassed by trying to search your memory banks.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:02 PM on April 27, 2011

... you have to choose using a variation on the classic saying: cheap, fast, correct - pick two. Though you need to substitute "reasonable workload" for "cheap." Personally I'd miss deadlines before delivering junk but one way or the other you need to be the one to put your foot down.

It might be worth considering your position, then meeting with someone to discuss these mistakes under the guise of trying to prevent a repeat. In that context you can hopefully segue into a discussion about the realistic workload and the above trilemma. If your area is technical, the number of work hours realistically needs to go down. It's pretty well known that in any field (physical or intellectual) there is a diminishing return on time spent at labor. You need to rest and it is not really possible to consistently work while maintaining a consistent level of productivity. Try to minimize hours spent working, and if you can, leave your desk every hour and walk around for a minute or two for a mini-break.
posted by Hylas at 6:33 PM on April 27, 2011

My job involves a kind of technical writing and the one thing that's made an enormous difference to the number of mistakes I make has been checking everything in printed form. Everything. Mistakes that my eyes slide over a dozen times without noticing when the text is on the screen become somehow trivially obvious on paper. For extra accuracy I put a little tick next to every little thing I check. Maybe you're already doing this, but if you're not it might be worth a try.

I also found that my error rate dropped dramatically during the second half of my first year in the job - I made fewer mistakes and got much better at self-editing surprisingly quickly.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:09 AM on April 28, 2011

Thanks again for the advice people. I'm am leaving this month. Despite the fact that I:
-read up on the industry in spare time
-check off edits on paper
-ask for reasonable amounts of help

the bosses will not let up on the workload. One was surprised I work through most lunches and weekends. Someone mentioned that they'd rather miss deadlines than turn in crap, well it's not an option here so I am OUT. Though they are smart, they are clearly so desperate to "stay busy" and "get new business" that they are OK with sending rushed proposals out.

Seriously, I can deal with the stress of finding more work elsewhere than keep working here. That's how I know things are bad. I'm used to contractual work which requires constant job searching.
posted by Freecola at 5:19 PM on May 15, 2011

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