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Just like owners, employees make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes can be taken in stride and other times they need immediate intervention.

As the owner, there are some do's and don'ts that you need to consider: The first 'do' is to look at the employee's mistake from the customer's perspective. If you're lucky, whatever went wrong was behind the scenes; if not, damage control with the customer is your first response.

A key strategy to resolving mistakes that affect customers is to objectively put yourself in customers' shoes. What is the impact on them or their business? What delays, costs or inconveniences were caused? Contact customers personally or, if you are a larger business, use a senior staffer and apologize.

Make sure you verbally demonstrate empathy for what the customers have gone through and offer recourse, compensation and a description of your countermeasures – what you will do differently in your business to avoid this from ever happening again.

What you don't do is blame the employee; that approach gets you nowhere. You own the company, the buck stops at you. When a supplier of mine who has screwed up blames a current or previous employee, a red flag goes up for me. It shows me that the owner is afraid to take responsibility and is acting more like a victim than a leader. Blaming an employee in front of a customer makes it look like you:

  • don’t know how to hire;
  • don’t know how to train;
  • don’t know how to build repeatable systems;
  • don’t know how to manage;
  • don’t know how to lead.

Next, you need to deal with the employee in question. If the mistake was malicious, intentional or illegal, then you will need to discipline in keeping with your company policy and history, or dismiss him or her.

If this was an honest mistake, you have an opportunity to build a better relationship with this employee, as well as build a better business. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of owners in these situations say: "If I want something done right, I have to do it myself". This demonstrates both ignorance and denial.

Even if you run a one-person plumbing business, and have no employees, you will always have to depend on outside factors to do your job. That may be suppliers, other customers or even the weather. Trusting employees with the front end and back end of your business is necessary if you ever want to grow or sell your business.

Do sit down with your employee and explain the impact of the mistake on the business and what you would have done differently. Do this with kindness and understanding because getting mad will not get the long-term result you need. In every situation I have ever been in, expressing disappointment was all that was needed to get the message across.

Do let your employee do at least half of the talking during this meeting. If they don't volunteer enough information, start asking questions. Did this happen due to a lack of experience? A lack of resources? A lack of training? An absence of systems? You need to know the answers to these questions.

If this screwup happened once, you should assume it could happen again. You need to determine how you will run your business differently in order to avoid it and make your business stronger and more reliable to customers, employees and shareholders (that's you).

Don't brush off an employee mistake as a fluke or statistical anomaly. Dig in. Get answers and make changes based on those answers. You'll have a happier employee, with better supports, as well as stronger business which will be easier and more fun to run.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.

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