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Should You Fire an Employee Who’s Made a Mistake?


It’s a position that no boss wants to be in. Your employee has done something wrong. Maybe it has cost the business in a serious way, or maybe it raises concerns about the employee’s judgment and ability to problem solve. Either way, it can be incredibly stressful. Do you use the incident as a teaching moment, both for the employee who made the error and for the company at large? Or do you lay down the law and fire them?

There is probably a company policy in place that can provide some guidance. However, there is something more important than the employee manual, and that’s professional judgment. Understanding the context of the employee’s action is vitally important. And I am a firm believer in following the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.


Zero Tolerance

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a large room filled with cubicles. Only a few workers populate this expanse, giving the appearance of a ghost town. In the foreground, two managers are surveying the sea of empty squares. The caption reads: “Maybe zero tolerance is setting the bar too high.”

Zero tolerance means absolute compliance with company rules. Any infraction is automatically punished by preset policy regardless of the individual circumstances of the transgression. No exceptions. At the agency I helped to create, LMO, we struggled with the idea of implementing a zero tolerance policy. We finally decided against it. This is not to say people can’t be reprimanded or fired. There are certainly situations that call for that. But, I have found that most mistakes are just that—mistakes. They can usually be fixed, and employees can use those mistakes as a learning opportunity.

A lot of factors played into our decision not to be a zero tolerance workplace. The most important was the creative culture of our shop. When exploring ways to position products, I want my writers and art directors to leave no stone unturned, to try new and unexpected things. I want them to push the boundaries.


Pushing the Boundaries

One of the boundaries they inevitably come into contact with is the one between good taste and bad taste. The line between good and bad taste is not only hazy, it moves. Over time, we have come to accept things that our parents would have found offensive. In the 1960s, the network censors had a rule that any scene that took place in a bedroom had to show separate beds. Today, such a rule seems foolish. But it is fair to assume that in the future folks will look back and find some of our mores just as foolish.

In my half century roaming around this planet, I’ve observed a truism about human beings. They are not perfect. Not one of them. Why then, would we expect them to be perfect in the workplace?

Don’t be confused. We do not excuse inappropriate behavior. People have been fired from LMO for improper conduct. But that conduct has to be put into perspective. The reason for the conduct is as important as the conduct itself. And sincere contrition should always be considered.

Sometimes a transgression is sufficient to warrant discharge. When that happens, the particulars of the firing should be kept private while informing the staff that the employee has left the company. Soon after, a general reminder in an email, perhaps a paragraph from the employee manual, can be instructive. It both notes the event and resets proper exceptions for the staff.


No Such Thing as Perfect

But the fact is there is no such thing as perfect. I remember the first time I looked through a loupe. A loupe is a small magnifying glass you can place on a surface and put one eye on. Jewelers use them to check gems. Art directors use them to check the printing on ads.

I picked up a loupe one day and put it over the logo of an ad. The magnification showed the straight edge of the logo to be extremely jagged. The perfectly straight line was an illusion.

Zero tolerance demands you fire a fine person who makes an innocent mistake. The standard and the price of such a policy are simply too high.

Worst of all, it eliminates one of the noblest of human qualities, forgiveness. Very often a second chance brings out the best in a person. You gain a better, more loyal employee than the one you had before the mistake.



This article first appeared in the January 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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