Learning & Development, Startup HR

Does the ‘Praise in Public, Correct in Private’ Logic Apply to E-Mail?

Public shaming was once a legitimate means of sharing examples of undesirable behavior to the broader group. Whether it was branding an adulterer with a scarlet letter in puritanical times or the more recent practice of hardline managers who dress down underperforming employees in front of the team, the idea is that public correction or criticism serves as both an incentive to adhere to certain norms of behavior and performance and a way to communicate what those norms are.

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Public Praise Tough in a Remote Work World

The prevailing guidance in more recent years, however, has been to give praise in public but save corrections and criticism for private, one-on-one communication. As we’ve written previously, there are some who question the wisdom of this more sensitive approach; nevertheless, it prevails in many offices.

Now that millions of workers in businesses across the country have shifted to remote work, how does this “praise in public, criticize in private” mantra translate to remote communication, specifically e-mail? Overall, it’s advisable for managers to adhere to the same policy they would follow when criticizing employees in person, and for most, that means private criticism.

But how does this work in practice?

E-Mail Etiquette in a Remote Environment

At the most basic level, it’s generally not a good practice to copy everyone under the sun on an e-mail drafted for the purpose of calling an employee out for poor performance. At the same time, if there is a preexisting e-mail discussion with many participants, managers shouldn’t necessarily remove others from the e-mail chain just because the next e-mail happens to be calling out a colleague. Nevertheless, managers should at least consider toning down that public criticism to help the offending party save some face, if appropriate. A follow-up one-on-one e-mail or phone call can be used as necessary to drive home the point.

While opinions on public shaming oscillate between support and disapproval, most managers tend to favor private criticism. But whatever a manager’s stance, he or she should remain consistent in handling criticism in the virtual world.