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What To Do When Your Employees Make the “Perfect” Mistake

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance

Baseball fans are up in arms over an umpire’s blown call that cost a Detroit Tigers’ pitcher a perfect game.  This afternoon, Commissioner Bud Selig decided to allow the call to stand

No one debates that the umpire just made a mistake. A big one.  So big that it deprived a pitcher one of the crowning achievements in baseball and a spot in the history books.  But the umpire is powerless to reverse it. 

Sometime, a mistake of this proportion (or bigger) is going to happen in your workplace too. A supervisor or a member of your human resources staff is just going to make a big ol’ mistake.  Maybe they won’t ruin a "perfect" game, but within your workplace it may be just as big.Yankee Stadium Copyright 2010 Daniel A. Schwartz, all rights reserved.

How might it happen? Well, suppose a marginally-performing employee is out sick for a few days.  When that employee is supposed to return to work, he doesn’t and the manager considers that the employee has "abandoned" the job and fires him. 

The manager is pleased because in this circumstance, he "solves" a larger problem without having to confront it — namely how to get rid of a marginally-performing employee for job performance.  The employee is replaced a week later by a superstar.

But suppose that a few weeks later, the manager discovers — much to his surprise — that he had actually received an e-mail from the employee notifying him that he was extending his absence but that it had gotten buried in the hundreds of e-mails that manager receives each day.  It’s an obvious mistake because had the manager read the e-mail, it would have been clear that the employee hadn’t really "abandoned" the job.

What then? The situation is no doubt complicated by the fact that the manager loves the replacement.

Legally, the employer might just try to get away with the status quo. Arguably the employee is at-will and even a mistaken belief by the employer is not sufficient to show discrimination or malice.  Remember the handbook language that says that an employee can fired for any reason or no reason at all?  An employer might try to invoke that as well.  But as a practical matter, even if it escapes liability, it is certainly possible the employee would file a lawsuit that might be costly. 

But there are other options, fortunately.  The employer may consider something else: Just fix the mistake and re-hire the employee (perhaps even with back-pay).  Yes, it will undoubtedly be more complicated because there will be messy details as to what position should be re-offered and how to handle the performance issues going forward. But an unconditional offer of reinstatement might also cut off potential damages that could be claimed by the employee.  (Be sure to consult with legal counsel before you consider this, however, as your factual circumstances will matter.)

Not all mistakes are fixable. And some mistakes by employees warrant disciplinary action. But sometimes mistakes are just lapses in judgment or oversights.

We all know mistakes happen.  How your workplace responds to a mistake may ultimately define your workplace more than the mistake itself.  

  • Dan:
    The baseball example is very timely. As a Phillies fan I was thrilled that Doc Halladay pitched a perfect game.
    But what happens if the baseball commissioner went back and changed the result? Wouldn’t many other umpire decisions be called into question?
    The manager in your post has an easier opportunity for a “do over” because it would be a one time non-public decision. How much risk of public disclosure is there?
    Rob

  • Bob Fitzpatrick

    Dan,
    I saw the call last night and from the camera angle it was not a close call. Clearly, he was safe. The ump had a different angle site angle on the play, and unfortunately got it wrong. I am a traditionalist and adamantly opposed to instant replay. And, think it would be absurd for the commish to overrule an ump. But, I wonder if the rules would have permitted the first base ump to ask the second and third base umps whether they had a better angle on the play and whether they thought he got it right or wrong. The rules permit the homeplate ump to ask first and third base umps whether they got calls correct. If the rules did not permit the first base ump to ask for help, I wonder whether the rules ought not be revised. Otherwise, baseball, being a near perfect reflection of life, “s” happens sometimes even to the almost best of us.