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Should you Fire a Coworker for Making an Honest Mistake?

Jakob Christensen
Actuary with love for programming. Besides coding, I love Icelandic horses, math, and photography. All featured photos are my own.
Originally published at on ・2 min read

A while back my hairdresser accidentally cut my ear. It was just a small cut and I hardly felt it but since cuts in ears have a tendency to bleed a lot my hairdresser felt really bad and almost starting crying.

After having driven home with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand holding a towel to my ear (it’s hard to drive a stick that way), why wife went into conniptions and while she tried stopping the bleeding she demanded that I find a new hairdresser.

“Why would I do that?”, I asked.

“Well, obviously this one is highly incompetent. And she even made you pay 100 DKK for this mess”.

I said: “I am not going to find a new hairdresser. I just invested 100 DKK to be absolutely sure that this hairdresser will never cut my ear again.”

So far I have been right. The nice little scar on my ear reminds my hairdresser to be extra careful and thorough :-).

Once in a while you read about developers being fired for making honest although massive bugs. The question is: Is it the right thing to fire people?

Personally, I think it is the wrong thing to do. Making an honest mistake is not enough to get you fired.

But it all depends on how you handle that mistake. If the person who made the mistake steps up to the plate, takes responsibility and does everything he or she can to fix it and learn from it, then you as a company will not get a better co-worker by firing and hiring somebody else. The new guy might even make the same mistake. It’s also very likely that the mistake happened because the processes in your company are not good enough.

What is the right thing to do?

Discussion (19)

paceaux profile image

I was talking to a Portuguese friend a few months back. He's a bus driver for those big two-level tour busses that you might see in various European tourist cities.

He told me about how one of the newer guys accidentally killed a woman. It was the woman's fault; she was on her cellphone and walked into oncoming traffic -- and he didn't stop in time (they're gigantic busses, they don't stop on a dime and if they did, people would get seriously injured). But, understandably, he was very upset by the situation.

Their bosses wanted to demote the driver; have him drive passenger vans for a while, instead of gigantic busses.

Paolo disagreed. Paolo felt that the best thing for this driver was to keep driving the big busses.

He felt that if this guy was demoted, it would affect his confidence. That lowered confidence would make it harder for him to drive anyone -- after all, these bus drivers have to gauge the safety of everyone on board against the safety of one person being an idiot. Paolo felt the demotion would make him an unsafe driver -- not the fact that he killed someone. Paolo's reasoning was, "the guy already feels terrible. That's lesson enough."

I agree with Paolo

Firing a developer for an honest mistake doesn't make that developer better. It lowers their confidence, makes a developer less sure of herself. That developer goes into the next job more cautious, less likely to speak up, more likely to not try a more advanced technique, and more unwilling to try out something she doesn't totally know. Codebases will suffer.

The developer will feel the mistake. The pain of the mistake will be lesson-enough.

The best thing you can do when a developer makes a terrible mistake is just discuss it with them:
Do you know what you did wrong?
Do you know how to do it right?
What can you do to prevent this kind of mistake in the future?

Only if that developer commits the same kind of honest mistake multiple times should you consider firing them. And only then, after carefully making sure that each time the developer was coached on what to do correctly.

t4rzsan profile image
Jakob Christensen Author

I agree with Paolo as well. I also agree that if you keep making the same mistakes you are probably just being careless.

Thanks for sharing.

ozzyaaron profile image
Aaron Todd

Oh wow! The EXACT same thing happened to me with my hair dresser a while back. I'd been going to her for years and she was only the second person to cut my hair that I didn't mind chatting with. More importantly I trusted her to make all decisions regarding my hair as I have no idea what I'm doing.

She cut my ear a tiny bit, I barely even felt it but it bled for ages!

I went back because there was a history of her doing the right thing, being a great fit, trying to meet my needs - and then one day she made a mistake.

In another similar story I went for a shave with a straight razor at a barber. The girl there didn't really seem to care and cut me all to hell. I have shaved myself with a straight and have done a far better job! I never went back.

I never went back because her demeanor showed me she didn't really care and my first service was terrible.

I think these stories illustrate the point that I would make about any situation including the employment situation but also friends and other relationships. If the person has a history of trying to do the right thing or doing the right thing and this is a genuine mistake then I forgive and we move on with a strategy built together to prevent that issue coming up again. It is important that it is talked about as much as is needed to get to this point I think. This, again, is true in the workplace as much as anywhere else.

If the person has a track record of not trying, where you almost look at the mistake of outcome of them not having the rigor required to do right by their team (or friend or friend group etc) then fire them (or quit them as friend etc).

Everybody makes mistakes, I think the important thing to ask is

1) Is this another failure in a line of failures or just a blip from a genuinely great person
2) Can you/they/everybody learn from this mistake and will they/you/everyone. People who don't learn from mistakes should absolutely be washed from a team and your life.

Just my 2c!

t4rzsan profile image
Jakob Christensen Author

This made me laugh. I hope we are not using the same hairdresser :-). You definitely should not trust a careless stranger with a razor blade.

I absolutely agree with your 2c!

bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

No, hopefully I was never in such a strict env and that allwed me to grow, learn, and most importantly push the boundries, you cannot do that if you are not allowed to do mistakes.

t4rzsan profile image
Jakob Christensen Author

Yes, you learn through making mistakes! Same as riding a bike. You learn it because it is highly unpleasant to fall over.

rhymes profile image

I do not know what it is the right thing to do but I agree with you that I would not fire the person.

You can see right away if a person is making a mistake because of an understandable human error (or as a consequence of processes in the company) or if they just don't care.

Mistakes are probably the best learning device we have as a human species.

tterb profile image
Brett Stevenson

I was gonna respond to this post, but you pretty much covered my exact thoughts.

hamsterasesino profile image

Assuming that the hiring process is correct and it ensures that the candidate is capable of doing the job, firing should be an option left only for treason to the company or simply not caring / having a toxic attitude.

If you fire that worker for an honest mistake, you are giving away the investment you just did to another company.

t4rzsan profile image
Jakob Christensen Author

Yes, absolutely.

alexgwartney profile image
Alex Gwartney

I feel like if a company is going to fire someone over a mistake someone makes every time someone does it. Then it's definitely not a company to work for. Because let's face it no one is perfect and at some point, I don't care how experienced you are as a developer and or what career you're in your going to screw up. It's just a matter of when and how you can prevent your self from limiting the number of times you do mess up. I also will agree to a point that sometimes that mistakes may happen due to a flawed process in a company. And in that case, it should be looked into and addressed.

I also think at the same time if the person that makes the mistake as long as they realize they did it and they own up to it right away. And they are willing to listen and they give some sort of correction in the future as to what they can do better to try and prevent that specific thing from happening again.

Then I feel that should be the end of it. Also at the same time if they keep doing the same thing and they are actually trying to change there process maybe then they need further training and then at that point decide if it is not working out. I also would say it highly depends on the company you work for and how they handle things whether or not they will handle things rationally.

Now lastly I will say the one time it would be appropriate to probably just terminate someone is if they just personally are just making mistakes but are not really caring about what they did and or trying to improve them selfs. As it will in the long run just end up causing more issues.

t4rzsan profile image
Jakob Christensen Author

I think you are spot on. If the employee is otherwise careful and has the right attitude, you should not terminate them.

kayis profile image

Depends on what they did, I guess.

I only saw people getting fired for ongoing incompetence.

Often companies just say "well we can't let them go over one error, we have to implement counter measures so the error won't happen again"

jfrankcarr profile image
Frank Carr

In the US corporate world, most software developers are one mistake away from being fired, or, at the very least, being put on a pre-firing "performance improvement plan" to provide management with legal cover for getting rid of you later. This also applies to other professional occupations, such as engineers, and lower to mid level managers. Previous performance in the role, even if it was excellent, doesn't matter. That one little gaff, which may not even be related to the actual work being done, is enough to get you sent out the door.

t4rzsan profile image
Jakob Christensen Author

I have a feeling that US corporations are much less forgiving than European. I don't agree with this way of running a business since coworkers won't perform very well without trust.

lexlohr profile image
Alex Lohr

You're right. This is how you get a toxic work environment: treat mistakes like catastrophes.

People will become risk-averse and avoid treating mistakes in a professional manner out of fear of losing their jobs, or even worse, hide their mistakes. This is a recipe for failure.

price84 profile image
James Price

If you can be sacked for a bug, then the employment laws in the country you live in are fucked.
Never, ever heard of somebody losing their job for introducing a bug; pointless post.

t4rzsan profile image
Jakob Christensen Author

Depends on how you define a "bug". You can get fired for pushing the wrong things to production:

price84 profile image
James Price

That's not a bug, that's intentionally being a dick to someone then accidentally pushing your stupid, mean prank to production. Not even close to a bug...