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The Ugly Side of Employee Feedback and How to Handle Criticism

An employee holds a knife to her boss' back while smiling in the camera

Often, it’s the employee who worries about the employer’s feedback. But what about when the employer, or even specifically you, the manager, are subject to employee feedback that isn’t so flattering? There’s a lot of advice out there for employees on how to handle criticism from management and even how to deal with a difficult boss. But bosses are people too, and when an employee speaks up about something with which they disagree or are uncomfortable, it’s the boss’ feelings that can be hurt. In fact, because the employee is the subordinate, criticism from them can take a manager by surprise, particularly when it isn’t received via an official, established channel, such as an internal survey or recommendations box.

So what’s the best way to handle criticism from an employee? Well, that depends on what unofficial way the criticism was received.

How to respond to employee feedback that’s on social media

While there are restrictions regarding what an employer is allowed to fish for, so to speak, via social media for the purposes of assessing a candidate or employee (see “The Rise of Social Media in the Workplace” by Ryan Campbell in Lēad Magazine, Issue 13), that doesn’t mean an employee should feel free to say whatever they want about their employer or manager. Although it’s true that employees, candidates, and even irate customers can anonymously complain about management on employer review websites, some employees make the mistake of airing their frustrations over Twitter, Facebook, or even instant messaging within the office. In fact, as discussed by Parisa Nikfarjam (an associate at Rubin Thomlinson, a law firm specializing in employment and human rights law) in a piece she wrote for TalentEgg, several notable court cases have led to the following conclusions regarding an employee’s offsite and off-duty conduA boss holds a tablet and shouts at his employeesct online, all of which allow an employer to take disciplinary action, including dismissal. Such conduct includes that which:

  • Harms the employer’s reputation
  • Makes the employee unable to perform their duties satisfactorily
  • Leads to the refusal, reluctance, or inability of other employees to work with the employee in question
  • Makes it difficult for the employer to properly manage its business and direct its workforce efficiently.

Despite the considerable power employers have in dealing with such employee “feedback”, that power should still be bolstered by a clearly defined social media policy that all employees are expected to review, sign off on, and adhere to.

How to handle criticism offline

Offline criticism can take the form of face-to-face criticism either privately or in front of a group. Either case is less likely to occur than online criticism because most frustrated employees believe (very wrongly in some cases, as discussed above) that their communications online are protected by some notion of free speech, or that no one at work will see/spread what they’ve said. But the question remains: How to handle criticism in the office if it occurs? And what if it occurs behind your back in the form of whispers at the water cooler or candid conversations in the cafeteria?

As with any employee complaint, you should handle face-to-face and behind-the-back criticism with poise. Such composure is not unlike the behavior a manager should demonstrate when dealing with conflict between two subordinates:

  • Consider that the employee isn’t trying to be difficult, but that they’re actually hoping you will do what you can to solve the issue they’re having.
  • Reserve judgment and maintain a neutral air about you.
  • Show empathy and use language that focuses on their needs, such as: “What do you feel would work best for you?”
  • You can even apologize – not for the decisions you’ve made, but for the fact that the employee feels frustrated. An apology is something an employee who’s trying to challenge you will find disarming.

However, thereEmployees gossiping at the water cooler’s still the issue of subordination to deal with, especially if the employee has been particularly aggressive and/or rude in their criticism. It’s not that employees shouldn’t be able to voice their opinions – part of good leadership is allowing them to do so – but they should know to do it respectfully. If an employee has crossed that line, they need to know it and understand that there are consequences for doing so; not because you’re trying to flex your muscles, but because you’re trying to maintain a larger, functional corporate culture that values not just openness, expression, and entrepreneurial spirit, but also expertise, experience, order, and professionalism.

Express your appreciation for their mettle, passion, and determination, and reinforce how much you value the opinions of everyone on your team. With that said, however, you need to point out for them – maintaining your non-confrontational manner – that you, and perhaps some others in your workplace, have perceived their willfulness as belligerence, and that such behaviour, if not adjusted, could compromise their long-term career goals. If they get more aggressive despite your efforts to hear them out, they do so at their own detriment. Maintain your composure and avoid getting into an argument with them. Ultimately, however, the goal is to enter into a diplomatic discussion about how they can improve their A woman yawns as she arm wrestles a manbehaviour to ensure their success.

These same principles should also be applied if you have to confront an employee who’s been badmouthing you behind your back. However, first you need to determine whether the comment is worth pursuing. Don’t let your ego get the better of you. If you feel the comment is serious enough to discuss, arrange for a private meeting with the alleged commenter. Repeat the comment to them and ask them if they in fact made the comment. If they deny it, there’s not much that can be done, but you should reinforce the organization’s policies regarding such behaviour, and that, if they ever have an issue with your leadership, they should come to you directly rather than discuss it with the team. However, if they do own up to the comment, reinforce your organization’s policies nonetheless and discuss why they made the comment. Again, maintain a non-confrontational air and try to empathize with the employee, addressing their needs. If the behaviour continues the badmouthing regardless, or if the comment was particularly egregious, refer to your organization’s disciplinary policies around such issues and take action.

How to handle criticism using official employee feedback channels

As toucheA boss speaking nicely with an employeed on above, the best way to encourage employee feedback, including criticism, is to create official channels by which they can provide such feedback, and anonymously if they so choose. Such channels include a recommendations box, regular surveys, dedicated periods during team meetings for questions and suggestions, or an intranet-based employee forum – a kind of social media platform for your organization only – that encourages discussion and solution propositions while adhering to professional guidelines. In fact, such channels may prove enough of an outlet for those who might otherwise turn to Twitter, Facebook, or the water cooler to vent their grievances, while at the same time creating a stronger sense of community and camaraderie for everyone.

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