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What to do when young employees screw up

The season is rapidly approaching when new hires will enter the workforce for the first time, some as interns and some as full-timers.

By some measures, this generation of twenty-somethings includes some of the brightest, best-educated people ever to join the employment ranks. Not surprisingly, given their professional lack of experience, what many of these young people do lack is business savvy.

Case in point: A colleague of mine recently told me a story about one employee, a recent college graduate, who took the liberty of writing directly to the president of the organization to complain that her department was not following environmental guidelines. She wasn't blowing the whistle about the company dumping toxic chemicals into the river, but rather that it didn't recycle paper.

You can imagine the ensuing kerfuffle. Senior executives and department heads got involved, as emails flew. The company started investigating its environmental practices. But here's the thing -- the enterprise did have protocols in place and was abiding by them.

Fortunately for the young employee, who was mortified over the storm she had set off, her bosses chose to use the incident as a teachable moment. Thanks to the open-mindedness of her employers, she kept her job. 

How should you handle similar office situations stemming from a worker's relative inexperience? Consider:

Research the facts. When a new hire does something that seems contrary to your company's culture, save the fury. Instead, calmly ask them to explain their actions. If they, like the young employee I described, were operating under false assumptions, have them research the facts and report back to you.

Keep it local. Make it clear to the new hire that they should bring problems to the attention of their immediate boss, not the head of the company. Yes, there are many fine organizations with CEOs who have (or claim to have) an open-door policy when it comes to dealing with subordinates. But don't abuse this privilege.

Follow up. Keep your eye on the employee. See how they react to the instructions above. If they are defensive, the boss may need to reassure them. But if this attitude persists, then this individual may not be ready for organizational life. If their talents and skills are marginal, it may be easier to part ways sooner than later.

A caveat -- if the new employee is acting petulantly or unethically, then the conversation needs to be more pointed. Managers should send an unequivocal message that the person must immediately change their ways or face termination. If the employee is compromising the integrity of the company, move quickly to fire him.

The young people you hire today may one day run your company. Treat them as valued contributors. When possible, give them the benefit of the doubt. Talented employees will repay this understanding many times over. Remember that these folks represent the organization's future. One day they may be managing you, or at least minding your pension fund.

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