Handling a pattern (?) of mistakes at the workplace
June 9, 2021 7:52 AM   Subscribe

I keep making mistakes at work - stupid ones, ones I should have noticed. I'm beating myself up over them, but more importantly, I'm really worried about losing my job. What can I do?

Said work is in data and a bit of copyediting. Some things need to be really precise and specific. I've tried being more attentive, but it feels like there's always something I miss even when I was paying attention. I know this is a field I'm competent in, and I know I've got a lot of skill here, but I keep missing one or two details and my boss notices this as a pattern.

I would love to actually get better at this, but I don't know how or if that's possible. But mostly I would like to be seen as good at my job - which in many respects I am! Any help would be appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you say a little more about your process? Is review and revision incorporated into the process? Are there tech solutions (copy and paste vs hand copying) that can aid you? Is there one aspect you seem to make the mistakes on or does it happen at a regular time or after a certain amount of time of entry? Is your workload ur deadline unreasonable?
posted by history is a weapon at 8:00 AM on June 9

Think about other jobs that require a lot of detail and have very little room for mistakes. Pilots and surgeons, for example. What do they do to decrease the chance of a problem?

One of the things these people use is a checklist. It sounds simple, but it's enough to make you take the time and review every step to make sure you're not missing anything and you've confirmed all steps are performed.

Could you develop a checklist for your workflow to make sure the data has been reviewed and edited correctly?
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:01 AM on June 9 [14 favorites]

Not sure about the exact nature of these mistakes, but you could try using Grammarly to check your writing. I recently started using it, and it's been catching mistakes that I probably wouldn't have noticed (it does also throw the occasional false positive, so you have to take its suggestions with a grain of salt).
posted by alex1965 at 8:04 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this will work for the type of thing you do, but a good proofreading trick is to read things backwards or aloud.
posted by HotToddy at 8:11 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Agree with a checklist approach if appropriate. I do similar-sounding work and what's invaluable to me is what I call bench-resting. I try to get my work done more than 24h before the deadline, leave it to work on something else and then come back. Fresh eyes!
posted by london explorer girl at 8:12 AM on June 9 [15 favorites]

Another good tactic for catching errors in writing is to put it aside for a while before submitting. Overnight, if possible. I can't tell you how many times I've reread something I wrote the day before only to realize I left out a word or used the wrong version of to/too or its/it's.

The other thing I do is if something absolutely must be perfect (like the customer newsletter) is have someone else proofread it for me. On my old team at work we used to ask each other to do this all the time.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:19 AM on June 9 [8 favorites]

Re: being seen as doing a good job: often means going over and above your assigned work to address issues/concerns that your boss has before your boss has to tell you about it. Completing tasks that reduces your boss's work, or better, makes your boss look good, will help you to be seen as doing a "good job."

However, it'll be tough to be seen as doing said "good job" if you're missing obvious errors that are part of your current role - get that part fixed ASAP and have a good story about the procedure you enacted to ensure error-free jobs in the future, etc. (checklists, as others have mentioned, can be helpful).

Good luck!
posted by alrightokay at 8:26 AM on June 9

One caution about something like Grammarly: I work with confidential/trade secret information and I’d get fired and sued on my way out the door if I sent anything I was working on to a third party, even for spell/grammar check, without management and legal’s sign off. It could be a useful thing but make sure it’s okay to use in your context!

Agree on checklists.

Is there any way you can automate any of your process?
posted by Alterscape at 8:28 AM on June 9 [7 favorites]

For reading aloud, I use text-to-speech software to read out-loud to me. I suspect though that from what you're saying, the problem isn't awkward phrasing or grammatical errors or missing words or such, but things like cross-checking numbers, etc. I wonder if you might be able to have something read aloud to you while you hold the tables in your hands (hard copy) and refer to them to check that everything matches as the computer reads to you.

You can probably also create a macro that highlights every number in a text. Check each and then un-highlight once you've checked.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:33 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

For the data parts (not sure how well this would work with copyediting), there's a technique related to checklists called pointing-and-calling. The technique takes advantage of the physical acts of pointing and speaking helping to focus attention.
posted by penguinicity at 8:40 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

Everyone above has good suggestions.

I’m wondering — are you the only person in this particular role at your organization, or are there others in the same role? Are you performing noticeably worse than others in the same role? It may be that your boss’s expectations are unreasonable, and better work processes need to be put in place. Humans make mistakes; it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not skilled. Hopefully this is an opportunity for you to propose some process improvements to your boss (or implement them on your own, if possible.)
posted by mekily at 9:28 AM on June 9

Sometimes resizing the typeface, switching to a different one, a different type color/background color, changing the margin size, or all of the above will make mistakes you didn't see before jump out at you.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:34 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I find switching formats (i.e. from word doc to pdf) often helps me catch things I otherwise might have missed. But the best thing, as already mentioned above is setting it aside for a day and coming back to it with fresh eyes.

I'd also keep a running list of the things you're checking for (for the example of proofreading) especially anything that you missed. I work in a STEM teaching lab, and I'm in charge of making sure everything stays safe and in good order. So I have a mental checklist of things to keep an eye on.
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:48 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Said work is in data and a bit of copyediting. Some things need to be really precise and specific.

As part of my job, I do data-collection, some minor tabulation and also copy-editing. I have recently received a performance review which noted that I don't (often) make mistakes in these tasks.

For copy-editing, I always read it aloud to myself. I could use the computer to do so (text-to-speech), but I find that for me, it's better to literally read it aloud as it means that I must be looking at the text and I am more likely to catch small errors (like two spaces between a word, incorrect comma usage, etc.). The grammar checks on word processors now catch things like repeated words and sometimes missing words, but they won't (for example) catch a mistake like typing "systematic" instead of "systemic". If it is possible, you can also ask someone else who is not familiar with the text to help proofread.

For data, I set up checks for myself. If I know, for example, that two numbers or the contents of two cells should match perfectly, I'll set up formulae to check that they do. An example Excel formula might be "=IF(A1=B1,"","!!!") - which translates to "If these two cells aren't the same, please scream at me". I use conditional formatting to highlight numbers which are too high or too low. I'll run and re-run numbers in different ways, ensuring that I get the same numbers each time -- for example, if I'm pulling data and I know that I have 9 large balls total, but my results are reporting that I have 6 RED large balls and 4 BLUE large balls, I'll flag that something is wrong (whether in my formulae or in the data-entry or something).

I think that bookkeepers have similar systems - essentially adding up things in different ways and making sure that they match.

No one is perfect: I have missed GLARING errors -- and it's harder to catch when something may be very long and complex (like a report where a designer thought that our 5-point scale would just look better as a 4-point scale and CHANGED IT, and we all missed it because it was a subtle difference visually - argh.) I'm also not naturally a careful person -- which is why I get very specific about consciously checking things.

I would also underscore all of the recommendations for checklists. They are essential in any safety-sensitive situation, and just really helpful for other things as well.
posted by jb at 12:16 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Another good copyediting trick is to print out and edit on paper instead of a screen.

A 95% success rate is world-class in the proofreading field, which means mistakes still slip through on occasion. (And sadly, nobody will see the 95% of mistakes you DO fix.) A second pair of eyes is invaluable.
posted by Threeve at 12:40 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

Yes, it's possible to get better at catching mistakes before your boss does. I am an admin supporting a CXO at a global corporation. It's a lot of pressure to produce accurate work and I'm not detail-oriented so I've written processes to check my work for various tasks.

My most stressful task is coordinating a multi-stop international trip. At a previous job, I set up such a trip for the wrong dates! Luckily, I had the sense to review the itinerary and check it against the emails related to the trip. I'm glad I did that instead of defaulting to my slapdash self and forwarding it to my executive. That experience taught me that I needed help. I asked the travel agent and the other admins for tips on how to check my work.

Over time, I've developed a process that involves triple-checking domestic travel and quadruple-checking international travel. I know this is not the type of work you do but I want to assure you that it's possible to catch errors if you set yourself up with tools. When I'm doing all these checks, I remove distractions. I log out of Slack and email. I turn my mobile phone upside down. I print every email related to the trip and use highlighters to confirm that the itinerary matches. It's tedious but I'd rather do that than have my boss point out that I set up a meeting in Tokyo before his plane arrives.

I think you have to ask yourself what is happening when these mistakes are slipping through. You might have to try different things to get through this.
posted by Soda-Da at 1:57 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Is there anyone else doing your job or a similar job who is familiar with your work who has the workload capacity to review it? I work in a data-heavy job with a high emphasis on accuracy. Anything that gets sent outside our department gets at least one additional reviewer, and anything important (ie, any government or financial filings) gets two or three extra sets of eyes. It's easier to find mistakes when you're not the one who did the work in the first place.
posted by bassooner at 2:21 PM on June 9

My job also involves copyediting (among other things). There have been various simple issues that have slipped past me many times. In some cases, I eventually started catching them. But for other things, I just had to create a checklist, which I now use for every piece I edit.

I do a series of searches on each piece to find certain things that I may have overlooked. For instance: My employer uses AP style, which means, in most cases, serial commas are verboten. So I search for ", and" and ", or". I also search for double spaces, and for various nonhyphenated words that, according to the AP, we're supposed to hypenate, but that I was consistently failing to spot (like "longstanding").

I do these searches after I do my main editing pass. Then, after the searches, I save my changes and do 1 more read-thru of the piece. Saving it makes the text look different in our system, and I find that helps me spot things I wouldn't otherwise have noticed.

Fortunately, there is always another pair of eyes that reviews the stuff I edit before it's published. That didn't used to be the case, and that was stressful. Having that backup is very helpful.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:45 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

It's good that your boss can catch these! That means someone else can too.

Pair up with someone you can trade reviews with, or make some other partnership, but have somebody look at your stuff. This is good process, humans make mistakes, deal. If you're in a good organizational place sell the process too.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:05 AM on June 10

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