Ooo, discipline me! But how?
January 31, 2007 12:14 PM   Subscribe

I own a small company and I'm at my wits end. We have some people who are good but not great, and they keep making mistakes or not following rules, which drive other people nuts because they have to catch these people's mistakes and otherwise clean up after them. Problems vary but are almost always caused by carelessness (putting in a wrong zip code, mistyping pricing, forgetting to get something signed off, etc) These aren't necessarily enough for the managers here to want to fire anyone, but there's only so many times you can say "don't do it again." It's also causing some of the better (more careful) employees to lose morale. I'm hearing things along the lines of "nobody cares if mistakes are made, so who cares." Please help me come up with ideas on how to discipline people. It seems like there's only so little you can do besides the usual, which seem severe (firing, less/no bonus). Where's the middle ground? How do we motivate these people to do better?
posted by edjusted to Work & Money (41 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's hard to tie a single missed sign-off to less/no bonus. But it's easy to tie a pattern of such activities to less/no bonus. So set up processes that monitor these sorts of mistakes back to whoever made them, with monthly targets for accuracy/error reduction. When it comes time to hand out bonuses, you use who made and didn't make their targets as a key deciding factor.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:19 PM on January 31, 2007

What kind of business/industry are we talking about? Are these seasoned professional people or just kids being paid peanuts?
posted by dr_dank at 12:22 PM on January 31, 2007

How about a three-strikes-and-you're-out system, wherein each violation/mistake/whatever (that you deem bad enough) results in a disciplinary write-up. Three write-ups and the person's employment is terminated. That way, frequent offenders know exactly where they stand, and so determine their own fate. And you don't have to feel bad about firing someone, if it comes to that.
posted by amro at 12:22 PM on January 31, 2007

Mistakes will always be made even with good people. Create a system for checking and fixing mistakes before they become a problem. I know I sometimes make mistakes and fail to catch them when rechecking my work. A third party QA person can work wonders.

In the case where you have people doing data entry, try to program in checksums so that the program will automatically check the address against a zip code and flag it if it's wrong. It's relatively easy to make macros in Excel for things like this if that is what you use.

It can also help to have written formal procedures for certain tasks. Some people operate better when following a set procedure.
posted by JJ86 at 12:23 PM on January 31, 2007

One thing is sometimes helpful is measuring results. If you keep track of error rates, the error rates will tend to go down if people know that they are measured. I'm in an entirely different field, but I have observed that when we measure defect rates and post them on our intranet, the rates of those errors go down quite a bit. I haven't had to use any progressive discipline, people just don't want their coworkers to think that they suck.
posted by Lame_username at 12:27 PM on January 31, 2007

Some people are just not incredibly detail-oriented, and will continue to make small mistakes no matter how motivated they are to avoid them. I am very detail oriented and hardly ever make small mistakes but have been working with a friend who is careless and disorganized by nature, even though he tries hard. He is not cut out for this job, whereas I am. (Not being cocky in the least - there are plenty of jobs that he's cut out for that I am definitely not!) Since you say you're at your wits end, fire the perpetual screwer-uppers and hire people who can prove to pay more attention to small details.
posted by infinityjinx at 12:29 PM on January 31, 2007

A little ownership goes a long way. Can you in some way tie pay to company performance, such as a small profit sharing bonus each paycheck, or perhaps quarterly?

I feel your pain, though - I managed a kinkos for a couple years, and when you're paying that little, you don't have much to work with.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:33 PM on January 31, 2007

Instead of punishing for errors, what about rewarding for accuracy? As far as personal motivation goes, I think a system designed around seeking pleasure (versus one designed around avoiding pain) might yield better results.

Also - one could argue that, especially in a small company environment, everyone should be great.

FWIW, I'm not a business person, and am very much talking out of my ass.
posted by avoision at 12:34 PM on January 31, 2007

A couple ideas ....
Create a chart that shows the number of mistakes per employee. Employee(s) with the least mistake get an afternoon or day off, or maybe a free lunch.

Or, flip it around, and those employees with the most mistakes have to relieve the admin and man the phones over lunch, or stock the refridgerator, or something similar.
posted by forforf at 12:35 PM on January 31, 2007

JJ86 is absolutely right. If absolute data accuracy is important, then you can't just trust one human to do it right - it needs to be rechecked, either by computer or by another human. Once a system for error checking and error correcting is in place, it's relatively easy to track performance and say, "Look, Bob has a 25% error rate!"
posted by muddgirl at 12:43 PM on January 31, 2007

Put a quality system in place where transactions get reviewed before they are out the door.
posted by wildgarlic at 12:49 PM on January 31, 2007

Do NOT apportion blame by highlighting the error rates of others. This will only serve to create a vicious cycle of increasingly poor performance. I'm sorry I can't find a cite right now, but 'blame culture' environments are invariably unhappy places to be.

The rule of thumb is 'praise publicly, often and immediately. Criticize in private'.

Instead, you should look to:
a) focus on rewarding positive performances
b) communicate with your staff about how to implement a quality system
b) discover, through communicating with your staff in an open and honest way, specifically why mistakes are being made and why lessons are not being learnt - it could be your recruitment and selection process needs overhauling
c) consider an on-going training, development and learning programme
d) not be afraid to cut out the deadwood. Some people are not right for some industries or companies. Help them on their way by providing constructive references focusing on what they do well, allowing time off for interviews, sponsoring a handful of printed and bound CVs and so forth. In the long run, getting rid of unsuitable employees is worth a few hundred pounds / dollars / groats in time off and office supplies.

It has to be said, this is a major area of study for many academics and management consultants (as I am finding out in my work and MBA course). Happy to offer further advice on specifics and ideas should you want to discuss in more detail - email in profile.

Good luck!
posted by mooders at 1:09 PM on January 31, 2007

Too little info in your question, but in general, I'd recommend:

If you can measure it, you can control it. Thus, establish a metric. Appoint some one to track it. Publish it. Discuss it.

Establish a reward gradient... rewards for desired behavior, sanctions for undesired behavior. Neither need be large to have some effect. Both work better than one alone.

Ask questions of the major offenders. Instead of saying "Bob, you suck and you're fired!", you might try, "Bob. I see that you made several mistakes last week. What's wrong with our system that you find makes doing X a problem? This impacts us all and I really would like your help figuring out how we can do better."

Your employees are the people you work for. What do they need to do their jobs correctly? What do they need to do them better? Partner with them in the tasks, but in opposition to some advice above, not in the business!
posted by FauxScot at 1:12 PM on January 31, 2007

Don't be so focused on discipline.

In the first place, you should be rewarding those people who are exceptional. The best work environment I've ever witnessed uses all kinds of techniques - competitions, tying bonus to good work (NOT lack of bonus to poor work!), involvement with the community in some way as well as some sports activities and an employee-run band.

Work on helping people have fun with doing well - the more you can associate happiness and praise with doing well, the less you have to worry about associating pain with doing poorly.

Those who express their dissatisfaction are basically saying: what is the point of doing well? You need to give them something to strive for, so they see being accurate and attentive as tied to having more pride and/or money.
posted by lorrer at 1:13 PM on January 31, 2007

A strong bonus system may be in order. Strong means that bonuses are tied to individual and/or project performance. If employee A worked on project X and the project lost money (for whatever reason), then employee A gets no bonus from project X. This gets employees interested in all phases of a project--proposal, performance, and collections.

Once employees understand that their decisions affect their own bottom line, the tend to think differently. There are consequences for their actions. Consequences are different from discipline.

On the downside, a strong bonus system is a pain for owner/managers (i.e., you) to administer. That is an unavoidable cost.

A "cheap" alternative: Before anything goes out the door, ask the responsible employee, "Would you stake your professional reputation on what is being sent out." You'll be amazed how many times an employee will want to double-check his or her work after hearing those words.
posted by GarageWine at 1:30 PM on January 31, 2007

Response by poster: Great comments so far. I like the idea of focusing more on people who're good than bad. As for a little more info: these aren't necessarily "seasoned professionals" but they're people such as customer service/order takers, artists mainly. And maybe I should've made a bigger emphasis on the fact that most of the mistakes are *careless* mistakes. Basically it's stuff like the customer sent in an order with clearly written instructions, and people just aren't paying attention when they're typing in addresses/prices/qtys/etc. Or e.g. you give written instructions to an artist to draw something with "April 1st" as the date, and the art comes back with "April 2nd" or something like that. Frustrating stuff.

I'm trying to figure out how to help our managers deal with this kind of stuff. Of course is someone's a total screwup, we'll get rid of them. But we're struggling with the slightly-below average or average people and trying to bring them up. With some people though, I'm wondering if they fall into the category of "they're just not cut out to follow simple instructions/details". I mean, these are good people and they seem to be trying hard and don't seem to be dissatisfied.

We've experimented with metrics, though it's a bit hit or miss (today, someone mistypes a phone number, tomorrow, it's a typo in the address, etc), so maybe we'll keep trying that along with other techniques.
posted by edjusted at 1:31 PM on January 31, 2007

Bring in a project manager to oversee these details- have it be a step in the process; this job does not go to the next step until Project Manager looks at it. Have them watch out for mistakes, and if someone makes a mistake, the work to fix it gets put back on their desk. Nobody likes cleaning up after someone else's mess; taking this task off of the desk of those who don't make mistakes will raise their morale.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:35 PM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Or the Project Manager could be in charge of fixing errors, if it's too small a detail to push back to someone.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:39 PM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

A red cup, upside down, either on the desk or monitor of the most accurate person in the place, along with a huge brag about just what an astonishingly perfect job this person did this week. This person should be praised to the rafters by one and all, and almost to embarrassment, by the fact that the red cup is in their space this week.

The red cup moves every week and also comes with a minor week-long perk, such as a parking spot for the week, or their choice of flowers for the reception area, something small and temporary, yet noticeable to others.

The least accurate person might buy the pizza for Friday lunch, or is the one sent to purchase the flowers for the reception area, or something.

My company bills for hourly service and I've instituted the red cup for the most hours billed for the week. This has led the team to (a) turn in their TPS reports on time so their time can be recorded, and (b) jumped revenue significantly as they compete for time.

I agree 100% with coming up with a way to measure performance.
posted by disclaimer at 1:40 PM on January 31, 2007

When you punish workers who are, on the whole, doing a decent job, you're essentially telling them that they're awful employees. Not that you actually told them so, but that's what they'll hear.

I agree with mooders -- praise should be frequent and specific, and criticism should always be couched in positive terms ("what can we do to help you do better?"). Psychologically, punishment creates a feeling of distance and reward creates closeness. You want your employees to feel closer to the company, not further away, so employ reward rather than punishment. You'd be shocked at how much better people can do if they are only praised when they do well!
posted by vorfeed at 1:43 PM on January 31, 2007

The shame award. As a programmer, if a change I commit isn't tested well/ breaks existing tests/ etc, a horrible stuffed animal sits on top of my monitor, letting people know.
posted by boo_radley at 1:44 PM on January 31, 2007

I was going to say Some people are just not incredibly detail-oriented, but it's been said. Since they aren't, either hire people who are (find out when you hire) or help them learn how. The not-detail-oriented people are not going to be good at breaking down what they're doing wrong, troubleshooting and catching themselves. However, if they have an actual checklist to literally physically check off, as in final proofing or as I see the bank staff doing, and as I have to do for some things, it creates an awareness that "Oh, that's goign to be checked later, and I want to get it right." Eventually I find I never miss the things I used to, which is exactly what you want.

Short answer: "Until you are doing incredibly well, you double check everything." That gets boring and motivates one to start getting it right.
posted by Listener at 1:44 PM on January 31, 2007

it's a team environment, right? Why not try rewarding/punishing as a team?

there are a lot of problems with trying to punish individuals. mainly it creates backbiting, backstabbing, and employees who are more worried about blaming each other than doing a good job.

also, it can be, and usually is, unfair. Most kinds of work are dependent on other people. One example:

i work in web development. our company was taking over code from a 3rd party. it so happened they had done a very sloppy job on my section, but i fixed it up and got it working great.

i was of the opinion that i did a great job fixing all those mistakes someone else made. However, each mistake they made got logged as a bug with my name on it. Even though I had fixed them all, the only thing i heard was that the big boss wanted to know why "[drjimmy] has so many bugs." I was laid off not too long after.

So I guess my point is, every company talks the talk about "team," very few walk the walk. If everyone is responsible, the employees will hopefully help to discipline each other (although hopefully no one will be beaten with bars of soap)

Also, be sure to consider whether you can use positive reinforcement (rewards for mistake-free performance) rather than punishment. This is always better, as long as you don't have employees who want to take advantage and will see this as a sign of weakness. but if that's the case, you are better off finding and eliminating those people anyway.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:50 PM on January 31, 2007

As a programmer, if a change I commit isn't tested well/ breaks existing tests/ etc, a horrible stuffed animal sits on top of my monitor, letting people know.

as a programmer, I'm not sure which I'd take care of first- updating my resume or ramming the stuffed animal so far up the butt of the manager who came up with that idea that he'd need to consult a team of protcologists.

(But maybe it's more in good fun than you made it sound.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:55 PM on January 31, 2007

In a situation where morale is already running low, I would hesitate to set up a cheesy/silly program with funny "rewards" or "shame devices". As drjimmy11 points out, this could potentially piss already angry people off (I would feel like my valid concerns about doing the work of others weren't being taken very seriously). Focus on the solutions that involve setting up ways to train workers not to make errors and catching errors before they are implemented.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:21 PM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I second all the rewards for good behavior recommendations. Public recognition + small gift or monetary reward can go a very long way in boosting the moral of the high performers and creating a culture in which higher standards are respected.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that NOT rewarding good behavior is guaranteed to produce a culture of mediocrity.

As for publicly humiliating poor performers, I thing that's a horrible idea and likely to backfire -- could easily turn into something that would constitute harassment. Myself, I'd never work in such an environment unless my life depended on it.
posted by treepour at 2:29 PM on January 31, 2007

I think lots of people would feel hugely patronised by 'stuffed animals' and minor, meaningless perks. But 'shame awards' as boo_radley calls them can be done well: Joel Spolsky, who's a well-regarded business and programming blogger, mentions that at his company the programmer who 'breaks the build' (i.e. introduces the bug) is put in charge of running the build process (an onerous but necessary task) until the next programmer breaks it. This disincentivises bugs, while being seen as a fair way of allocating the boring task of running the build.
posted by matthewr at 2:35 PM on January 31, 2007

Got to add one thing. You say they are artist types? Well, those people,if they are any good, *are* detail oriented elsewhere, in context of their art, whatever it may be. You can point that out to them and ask them to transfer that skill to this context. By analogy, they should be able to see the difference in how they approach, and also the importance you place on what you are paying them for, as they might place on their art.
posted by Listener at 2:38 PM on January 31, 2007

Have you tried having *one* order taker for the organization? So, if an order comes in, an artist/whoever forwards to the order taker and this person uses a standard form to record the order. The order taker must be a detail-oriented person. Once the artist has finished, the order taker reviews the artwork and either returns for rework due to errors or signs off.

It sounds like it would be hard to introduce tracking metrics in your current organization, so you'd have to change the process to make it less error-prone.
posted by crazycanuck at 2:47 PM on January 31, 2007

You own this business, right? So you're in the rare position of actually being able to fix this problem instead of just whinging about it like most of us do.

Don't mess with your people. People will always screw things up occasionally. It's just what people do. Trying to turn people into Efficient Economic Production Units will just breed toxic workplace culture in any number of ways.

Instead, work on your processes.

Start by keeping a screwups log. Every time somebody detects that something's been screwed up, have a centralized spot where that screwup can be recorded.

At the end of a couple of months, go through the log and look for patterns. You will find them, and they're almost certainly going to be process-related rather than tied to particular people.

Find the process that's got the most screwups associated with it, and then invite all your staff to help you redesign that process to make that particular kind of screwup harder to achieve.

Rinse, repeat.

A year from now, you'll wonder why you were bothering to think about employee discipline.
posted by flabdablet at 2:58 PM on January 31, 2007 [3 favorites]

Analyse the errors to see if systems can be improved. Ask the artist why they painted April 2nd. Maybe the type is could be bigger. Maybe there's so much detail they get overwhelmed.

Make sure people really understand how tiny errors cause trouble. During times when the error rate is high, you might error check a percentage of work.

Then do contests for group accuracy with prizes for whole groups, contest for individual accuracy, etc. Visible rewards have a great payoff - parking space for most improved, Desk award for highest accuracy error rate. A note saying Congratulations, your accuracy rate rose .2 % in February with a gift cert for lunch. If the error rate is below x% in February, everybody gets to wear jeans. People want to do well at their jobs. Keep measuring performance, announcing results, and praising/rewarding excellence.

If there is a negative, bad-spirited culture, work on team-building.
posted by theora55 at 3:16 PM on January 31, 2007

What flabdablet said.
Where I work that is exactly what we do, keep detailed records of every error made.
How much time do you spend supervising on-site?
posted by bkiddo at 3:58 PM on January 31, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, lots more great advice. I should make another thing clear...I'm "mixing" up depts in this question. That is, CSRs as a group isn't doing too hot with the careless mistakes, AND the artists as another group isn't doing too great either.

There's a bit more background, but I don't want to clog up the internets with too many details. All I really care about is how to get people to be more careful. I know mistakes are gonna happen, so the thing to do is to see how to minimize them. I'm very open to both rewards and/or "punishments."

I've started keeping simple tally marks of mistakes and it looks like that's a good start. And flabdablet, in most cases, I'm absolutely sure it's the person(s) and not the processes that's the problem. Again, I'm talking about careless mistakes "oops I didnt mean to type in 124 instead of 123, my bad" kind of mistakes, nothing knowledge or experience-based. I don't wanna fire them, because (to me at least), the mistakes don't happen so much that you wanna start letting people go (not to mention hiring is a huge drain on time and money, especially for small businesses). I just wanna see if I can make things more tolerable.
posted by edjusted at 4:13 PM on January 31, 2007

In my office, we have been dealing with some of these problems with small mistakes that cause big problems. They are always traceable to problems in our processes -- not double-checking things, not having people working together well enough, the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. I think whoever suggested instituting a system of checks and double-checks is right on target. I was reading something about a law firm, where a guy said that everything they send out is TRIPLE checked for accuracy. That's a great policy.
posted by jayder at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2007

Positive reinforcement, not punishment, is far the fastest way to get improvement.

Reward your workers for finding bugs in the process (or lack of process: difficulties which leave opportunity for error) then clean up the process. Let your workers invent the better ways to do it -- they've got the nearest viewpoint -- and make them feel good about improving things.
posted by anadem at 5:49 PM on January 31, 2007

And flabdablet, in most cases, I'm absolutely sure it's the person(s) and not the processes that's the problem. Again, I'm talking about careless mistakes "oops I didnt mean to type in 124 instead of 123, my bad" kind of mistakes, nothing knowledge or experience-based.

But you're not seeing that that IS a process issue. If having the right number in that field is essential, it needs to be double- or triple-checked, probably by someone other than the person who entered it originally (it is very hard to proof your own work). Typos are going to happen, fairly often in a data entry situation. If they are unacceptable, make them impossible.

I used to work in a bank, and if a customer's account number was entered in the "amount to debit their account" field, that could result in a 7+ figure withdrawal. The software we worked on searched for numbers that looked like account numbers in that field (length, prefix) and threw up an "Are You Sure" warning if it detected one. Saved my butt several times. It is a careless mistake that was solved by a change in process.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:45 PM on January 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

I supervise a small group at the moment, only 4 people. I have had large groups in the past. I think small groups are more difficult, and I know that the same tactics don't work as for large groups.

The only thing I've found to work for the small group involves more work for the supervisor, at first. You have to personally check every task, as soon as it's done. You have to have them bring it to your desk. Then you drop everything and look at it, right then. Not good enough? Give back to the same person to finish properly/rework. They will soon anticipate the unpleasant experience of standing there like a moron while you tear their "work" up, and start double checking it themselves first. Then, your workload goes down some and you can start backing off on an individual basis. Be sure to praise them when you don't find so many errors (at first, but still send it back) and when you can no longer routinely find any errors. You may have to shorten deadlines for first submission to allow for the rework time. No need to have public shame sessions - everyone knows who keeps coming back to do rework. The morale of good workers will go up, since they aren't getting stuck with someone else's rework.

I also have the power of not letting them go home until the job is done, so YMMV, but I find I don't really ever have to do that unless someone is intentionally foot-dragging.
posted by ctmf at 7:34 PM on January 31, 2007

Have you evaluated whether the errors have less to do with the people, and more to do with the systems that are in place?

A great many (I'd argue *most*) mistakes made in filling out forms are not a result of laziness, or carelessness, much less stupidity. Instead they're the result of bad forms. A great many mistakes made in following procedures are a result of procedures that don't really follow the natural process or progression of the work being done. In these cases adding more rules, policies and standards will net you nothing at all, and very possibly make the situation worse.

If you want better results, make it *easy* for people to perform well. Make it difficult for people to make errors... and then make it easy to recover from errors that they *do* make.
posted by deCadmus at 8:04 PM on January 31, 2007

Response by poster: Rock Steady: I hate to devote the resources to double-checking, since to me, that should be the job of the original person, but you have a good point.
posted by edjusted at 12:55 PM on February 1, 2007

I was about to jump on "oops I didnt mean to type in 124 instead of 123, my bad" but Rock Steady made my point for me. It's a process problem.

What does 124 mean? Is it a quantity (in which case I can't see an off-by-less-than-1% error being a major screwup) or is it an item code? If it's an item code, why not rework your codes so that every one includes a check digit, or make them short, pronounceable alphabetic strings instead of numbers, then have the forms-entry software validate them before accepting the form? Or why not get rid of the codes altogether and let people select descriptions from a dropdown box? And so on, and so forth.

A major point I really want to hammer is that your best source of process improvement ideas will be the people who use those processes. You can't expect a CSR you've hired for their people skills, or an artist you've hired for their creative skills, to be as anal as your bookkeeper when it comes to filling in forms; you need to design systems that suit your people's strengths rather than breaking due to their weaknesses. The best way to do this is to start by asking your people how they would rather things worked, then doing your damnedest to make that feasible.

If you treat your people like adults with skills and needs and preferences rather than puppies who will jump for biscuits, they'll want to look after your business.
posted by flabdablet at 3:10 PM on February 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I hate to devote the resources to double-checking, since to me, that should be the job of the original person, but you have a good point.

I hear what you are saying, and maybe it's just me, but back when I was writing papers in college, I learned quickly that I could NOT proofread my own stuff for spelling and grammar. I am quite good at checking others' work, but I just breeze right over too many of my own mistakes. As a result I began to make sure I finished my papers with enough time to have someone read them for me. It put greater pressure on me, but if the mistakes are important enough, you need to figure out a way to do it.

But as many others have said, your employees are your best resource for figuring out how to accomplish this. Ask them!
posted by Rock Steady at 5:30 PM on February 1, 2007

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