Cartoon of an angry boss and a nervous employee

What to do when your staff members forget to do things

One of the most common complaints I hear from leaders is about their staff forgetting things. Forgetting to complete the full list of duties on their shift; forgetting to complete an incident report; forgetting to update their availability; forgetting to lock the door.

Some common approaches to the problem:

  1. Explaining to the employee the problems created for others when they forget to do things.
  2. After a few warnings, applying discipline like creating a written reprimand in their file or reducing their hours.
  3. Micromanaging the employee, reminding them constantly of everything they need to do.

None of these approaches is the answer. The first two approaches are designed to try and motivate the individual to try harder to remember, and the last approach takes responsibility away from the person.

The truth of the matter is that people who remember things that need to be done and who don’t miss important times and dates all use a system to keep track of things including checklists, to-do lists, and calendars.

If we have a staff person who struggles with remembering what to do and when, it is our responsibility as their leader to ensure that they are using a proper system to address this. So often I see managers complaining about forgetful staff and making the mistake of trying to motivate them to change without giving them the resources to actually fix the problem. It might seem like babysitting to teach a 21-year-old to use calendar software or to stop a meeting to insist the same person make a list, but until we do these things, we have no right to discipline someone for forgetting things.

Leadership expert Linton Sellen tells us that capability is something that leaders build in their staff and that discipline is only for those that are unwilling to participate in the process. Simply forgetting to do something is not a malicious act and treating it as such is wrong and will cause employee dis-engagement. The only time we should be heading towards discipline when employees are missing deadlines or forgetting tasks is when they give us attitude or won’t work with us on improving their personal organizational systems.

Many of the best people I have worked with did not come to me with all the capabilities required to do their work really well. By building their capability as their leader and trainer, I try to create a strong bond that drives their engagement on the team and enhances their performance. One of the basics is personal time management. If you can help someone tackle this problem you are not only creating engagement and loyalty, you are also giving someone a skill they will use for the rest of their life.