HR Management, Strategic HR

Tips for Giving Negative Feedback to Employees

Giving feedback to employees—both positive and negative—is critical for employees to know where they stand. It also helps ensure you’re on the same page in terms of performance expectations. But it’s a task that is often easier said than done. Giving feedback, especially when it is negative, can be an emotionally complex task. Many managers avoid it entirely for as long as they can. This could be out of a simple fear or distaste for confrontational situations. Or it could be because the manager does not want to be seen as unkind. No matter the reason, avoiding negative feedback can actually backfire when the problem escalates or when other employees resent that someone is underperforming or disregarding the rules.

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HR teams and others in supervisory positions must have tools to give employees negative feedback in ways that are constructive. Doing so helps keep everyone on the same page and allows the employee the opportunity to improve and grow.

Tips for Giving Negative Feedback to Employees

When negative feedback is delivered poorly, it can make a situation worse. Use these tips to help educate your team to give negative feedback in the best way possible to get the best outcome:

  • Ensure that employee and managerial relationships are strong, which will create an atmosphere of trust. Having this as a basis will make negative feedback something that is just one small part of the employer-employee relationship.
  • Consider the venue. Most of the time, it is appropriate to deliver negative feedback in private or with only those people who must be involved in the conversation. Giving negative input in front of others causes additional (likely unnecessary) stress and frustration—and possibly embarrassment—for the employee. But think about it in advance. There may be some situations in which it is beneficial to discuss ways to improve performance in a group setting, despite the fact that it could be awkward at first. Think it through, and have a clear plan.
  • Don’t delay. If you wait to give negative feedback, there are a lot of ways it could become worse. First, the employee may not realize there is a problem; the situation may even be forgotten. It will look like it was unimportant if it is delayed. One caveat: Don’t deliver negative feedback when you’re upset or not in control of your own emotional responses.
  • Be aware of how the feedback is worded. For example:
    1. Steer clear of using language that implies the problem is a personal defect. Using neutral language can still get the point across and be much less likely to make someone defensive. For example, if someone is showing up late for work, focus on saying exactly that without implying that he or she is irresponsible or lazy. Remember that some problems may have a cause you’re not anticipating—don’t jump to conclusions in advance.
    2. Be specific in what the problem was and what should be done instead. Use specific examples when appropriate.
  • Ensure managers are continually giving positive feedback, too. This helps so that employees feel appreciated and don’t feel like the only time the manager says anything is when there’s a problem. But don’t bury the negative items in a long list of positives—doing so will only water down the message.
  • Have a plan for follow up, and ensure the employee knows you think they will do well. Even after someone receives negative feedback, reassure that person (if appropriate) that this is just one issue and you are still confident in his or her ability to perform his or her job well. Set a specific plan for next steps, and then follow up.
  • Be open to receiving feedback, too. The door should be open for feedback to flow both directions, and for the employer to take negative feedback from employees seriously.
  • Allow the employee to process the feedback, to ask questions, and to get clarification.
  • Train managers on how to handle employee emotions. This is a difficult skill to master, and we shouldn’t take for granted that everyone can do it well.
  • Consider keeping feedback separate from pay discussions. This can help keep the conversation focused and less heated when the employee is less distracted by the fear of lost pay.

Negative feedback—when delivered properly—can help both the employee and the employer because it’s a way to encourage the employee to take the opportunity to improve the situation. Using some of these tips can help.