Most human resources managers will tell you that the thing that frustrates them the most are supervisors who complain about employees without having previously discussed their concerns with the employees themselves. Of course, it’s not surprising that many supervisors avoid having these difficult conversations and fail to directly address performance issues with their subordinates. These are not fun conversations and can result in hurt feelings — or worse, complaints — that the supervisor is being unfair or discriminating against the employee.
Good supervisors have learned that there is a real art to giving constructive criticism that does not come across as overly negative or passive aggressive. To the extent that a supervisor can honestly say something positive about an employee’s performance, it is always helpful to begin a difficult conversation by focusing first on employee’s talents — assuming there are some — before addressing any weaknesses. Moreover, before identifying the employee’s problems, it may not be a bad idea to ask the employee to identify what he believes his weaknesses are before telling him what you think. The supervisor may be surprised that the employee is well-aware of what his failures have been. If the employee is not sufficiently perceptive to see his problems, a supervisor may want to ask for permission to criticize before doing so, by saying “May I make a suggestion about how you might improve …?”
Employees also tend to be more receptive to criticism if the supervisor persuades the employee that both the employee and the supervisor share a common goal in getting the work done. Telling the employee that, “You and I need to make sure that we meet the client’s deadlines” is much more positive than, “You dropped the ball on this project and could cause us to lose this business.” Similarly, good feedback focuses on what needs to be done as opposed to what was not done in the past. Giving an employee concrete strategies for addressing a deficiency is much more helpful than listing the employee’s faults.
While some employees will continue to fail to meet their supervisors’ expectations after they have been given constructive criticism, it has been my experience that employees who have received positive constructive criticism are far less likely to sue their employer if they are terminated. The employee who has received constructive and positive criticism on an ongoing basis is less likely to view his supervisor as unfair and much more likely to conclude that they were simply not a good fit for the job. Ultimately, a workplace where constructive criticism is delivered to employees on a regular basis will actually be a happier one.