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How to Deliver Negative Employee Feedback

Organizations always want to perform at a high level regardless of what’s happening with the economy. Keeping employees focused on high performance means making it part of company culture. And the way to do this is to regularly provide performance-related feedback. That feedback — positive and negative — must be delivered well.

In part one of this performance feedback series, we talked about delivering positive feedback. As much as we would love to only give praise, realistically, we must occasionally provide corrective (or negative) feedback. It’s important to place equal emphasis on both.

Whether it’s a manager or colleague, if a person only delivers negative feedback, it can hurt their personal credibility and brand. Co-workers could start avoiding an employee who only delivers bad news. This can have an impact on:

  • collaboration
  • teamwork
  • accomplishing goals
  • performance

Before sharing any steps for delivering corrective feedback, let’s define what it means. Or more specifically, what it’s not: discipline.

Organizations have disciplinary policies and procedures that need to be followed. If you have questions about when feedback should become disciplinary, talk to HR.

What we’re discussing are those everyday conversations that we must have to make things better. While we might think this only applies to managers, that’s not true. An employee might use these steps to correct a co-worker on proper procedure. Or an employee might need to correct their manager on a unique situation. That’s why employees at every level should receive feedback skills training.

What is corrective feedback?

As we discussed, corrective feedback is not punishment. The goal of corrective feedback is behavioral change.

If employees feel they are being punished, then they might assume they are being “performance managed” out of the organization. That creates disengagement, which negatively impacts performance.

Corrective feedback should be delivered in a non-threatening way that creates behavioral change.

3 components of corrective employee feedback

Like positive feedback, a corrective feedback conversation has three key elements:

1. Be timely

Timely feedback is exactly that. Telling someone they did something wrong six months ago doesn’t place a priority on the issue. If it’s not important to the organization when it happens, then it won’t be important to employees after the fact.

2. Focus on behaviors

The focus of your message should be on actions, not attitudes. Describing behaviors is more objective than describing attitudes, which can often be misinterpreted and derail the conversation. In addition, it can negatively impact working relationships.

3. Be specific

This component refers to the need to understand the expected performance standard and how it relates to behavior. During my pay-for-performance webinar, I talked about how important it is for organizations to have and communicate performance standards. As much as organizations and individuals might feel they’ve communicated the performance standard, it’s possible the message wasn’t completely clear and needs to be reinforced.

5 steps for delivering corrective feedback to your employees

You might recognize these steps if you read the previous post. That’s intentional. Effective feedback should be consistent, whether it’s positive or negative. The recipient will take the corrective feedback seriously if it’s consistently delivered in the same thoughtful way as praise.

1. Schedule the conversation

It’s OK to give someone a heads-up about the conversation. For example, “Hey, Leonard. I’d like to talk on Friday about the Jones account.” Or set aside time during a regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting: “Jose, let’s plan to review your sales numbers at our next meeting.”

This approach gives employees time to prepare. After all, a surprise conversation might not turn out as planned.

2. Present the current situation and set clear expectations

If a third party has firsthand knowledge of the behavior being discussed, make sure they’re present. Otherwise, this could turn into a stalemate (i.e., “I didn’t do that. Your sources are wrong.”). Don’t assume the employee knows the performance standard. Be prepared to explain it and answer any questions.

3. Identify alternatives, options and needed resources

When you bring up an issue or concern, you send the message that you’re invested in helping the recipient solve it. Otherwise, it’s simply a directive to “fix it.” While that might be necessary at times, it doesn’t always change behavior. What makes feedback effective is two-way dialogue. Ask an employee to share ideas for how they would address the issue.

4. Discuss barriers and potential problems that could arise

Speaking of addressing issues, the employee might have questions about what they can and can’t do to correct the situation. Brainstorm and problem-solve with them. Depending on the situation, it’s possible the employee will need your help, support and guidance to accomplish this change.

5. Agree on a specific course of action and a follow-up date

Always follow up. This is important for two reasons. First, you can use the positive feedback steps as a guide for the conversation. Remember to thank the recipient for listening to your feedback. And second, you can use the follow-up conversation to find out how the employee accomplished change. It’s a proven strategy that will be crucial in the future.

Negative feedback doesn’t have to be a punishment. These steps can be used as a planning tool to ensure the conversation stays focused.

Use corrective feedback with positive intentions

We’re human and make mistakes. We need others to help us get back on track. When corrective feedback is delivered with positive intentions, the employee knows their employer supports them and will work on changing their behavior.

Organizations can use these feedback guidelines to educate employees during orientation and onboarding about the most effective ways to deliver feedback. No one should wait until a situation gets frustrating before providing feedback.

Creating a culture of regular feedback allows individuals in every role to help each other. And that helps the organization perform at a high level, too.

Read my previous blog post to learn how to deliver productive, positive feedback. And explore this white paper to learn more about fair and equitable pay-for-performance models.


DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.

About the author
Author picture, Sharlyn Lauby
Sharlyn Lauby
Sharlyn Lauby, SHRM-SCP, is the president of ITM Group Inc., a Florida-based training and human resources consulting firm focused on helping companies retain and engage talent. Prior to starting ITM Group, Lauby was vice president of human resources for Right Management Consultants, one of the world's largest organizational consulting firms. She has designed and implemented highly successful programs for employee retention, internal and external customer satisfaction, and leadership development. She is also well-known for being the author of the HR Bartender blog, which has been recognized as one of the top five blogs read by HR professionals. She is the author of Manager Onboarding: 5 Steps for Setting New Leaders Up for Success, and her latest book is The Recruiter's Handbook: A Complete Guide for Sourcing, Selecting and Engaging the Best Talent.