Melania Trump

Melania Trump and her speechwriter: What to do when trusted employees make big mistakes?

By Tina Irgang

When it became clear that parts of Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention were almost identical to a 2008 Michelle Obama speech, the Trump campaign faced a barrage of media criticism. On July 20, long-time Trump Organization employee Meredith McIver issued a statement taking the blame. All of which raises the question: When a usually solid employee takes a major stumble, what should you do?

In her statement, McIver called herself “an in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization” as well as “a longtime friend and admirer of the Trump family.” She explained that she had worked with Melania Trump to gather ideas for her speech, and that the two had discussed “many people who inspired her,” including Obama. “Over the phone, she read me some passages from Michelle Obama’s speech as examples. I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. This was my mistake,” the statement goes on to say.

McIver has worked for the Trump Organization since 2001, and co-authored many of Donald Trump’s books, including Think Like A Billionaire and How To Get Rich, according to NBC News.

What to do after a trusted employee’s misstep

McIver notes in her statement that she offered her resignation over the plagiarism incident, but that the Trump family rejected her offer. She adds: “Mr. Trump told me that people make innocent mistakes and that we learn and grow from these experiences.”

(Note: While a friend of McIver’s has speculated that she “fell on her sword” to deflect blame from her employers, it is beyond the scope of this article to explore whether the account given by McIver in her statement is accurate.)

What if it happened to you? If a long-time employee makes an embarrassing mistake, should you simply shrug it off? Here’s what the experts recommend:

  • Have a conversation about what went wrong, and how. Talk to the employee about exactly how he or she fell short of your expectations, and encourage a few days of reflection about what led up to the mistake, Fast Company says.
  • Encourage employees to own their mistake and fix it. “Good employees take accountability for their mistakes. They admit them readily. They don’t make excuses for their mistake. Rather, they acknowledge that yes, they made a mistake, and they express openly what lesson they have learned from that mistake,” says Forbes.
  • Be calm. Shouting at employees will not cause them to learn from their mistakes. Instead, “yelling yields resentment in the receiver and often makes the message unpalatable,” notes Fast Company.
  • Keep your distance for a while. Employees who have made a mistake “need to feel a little distance and a sense that ‘all is not OK,’” says Fast Company.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should never fire a long-term employee for making a mistake. If the mistake, for example, puts others’ safety at risk, if the mistakes pile up, or if the employee compounds the mistake by trying to hide it, it could amount to a fireable offense, notes TalentEgg.

Finally, remember that many mistakes will hurt your employee worse than they hurt you. While McIver is keeping her job at the Trump Organization, her name is likely to be forever associated in the public mind with a plagiarism controversy.

Tina Irgang is the managing editor of SmartCEO magazine and SmartCEO.com. Contact her at tina@smartceo.com.