What to say when employees err
“What your reader said last week (“Be kind and be firm,” July 27, 2023) about their employee slamming on social media the manager who criticized him—the same thing happened to us,” says DY, the second-generation head of a business.
“But our employee, let’s call her Tess, is still with us, because she did not say the name of our company or her supervisor online. She cried and said she needed this job, so we gave her another chance. But she misses deadlines and one customer canceled their order. Her supervisor was furious. Another supervisor said ‘these things happen so let’s just move on,’ but I want Tess to meet standards. Her job is not that hard and we can easily hire someone else. But I don’t want the social media situation to happen again. What do we say when employees like Tess make repeated mistakes?”
First, control your emotions. It is natural to get mad when profits are lost because of repeated negligence, but getting mad does not make employees perform better—it makes them resent you, which is likely why your employee ranted on social media.
Which brings us to the second point: give employees an appropriate space to vent emotions. In the past, most people kept their emotions private (and had no access to social media), but now, online anonymity leads people to act in ways they regret after their emotions die down.
Instead of bottling emotions, which many employees find difficult to do, it is better for everyone to acknowledge that making and correcting mistakes are painful. Let employees have a good cry (don’t laugh at them or belittle their emotions). Allow them to say what they feel, even something like, “Ang sakit naman (That was harsh)! I wish you said it more nicely.”
Then you can say, “I tried to say it as gently as possible, but I only stated the facts. Customers canceled their orders because the deadline was missed again and this harmed our company.”
Even if critiques are delivered correctly, in a culture like ours that is sensitive to every perceived slight, it is inevitable that critiques are often taken badly.
That is why homes and schools need to inculcate a growth mindset early on (“Poblacion girl and discernment,” Jan. 6, 2022). Mistakes need to be taken in stride, rather than resented, particularly in the workplace.
Like you, I do not agree with Tess’ second supervisor who just wanted to move on. If mistakes are ignored, then no one benefits.
Amy Gallo of Harvard Business Review says: “Be clear about what went wrong. Don’t sugarcoat what happened or resort to ‘corporate speak’ that abdicates responsibility.”
Third, blaming employees’ character or personality is never ideal. Instead, focus on actions, on how they can improve. You can tell Tess: “Making mistakes does not make you a bad person, but we need to analyze what happened so this is not repeated. Let’s analyze why you missed the deadline. Did you underestimate the time it would take? Were you prioritizing other tasks?”
Never tell employees that their jobs are easy and that they are replaceable. Again, regulate your emotions. You can say, “This job does not seem too demanding, but perhaps you are dealing with problems at home so that you are overwhelmed at work.” Give employees an opportunity to be honest with you and with themselves.
Fourth, work with Human Resources to draw up codes of conduct, particularly with regard to social media.
On the first day of class, we remind students to strictly adhere to data privacy rules, which includes no posting of materials or sharing of information, including naming of names, outside the class, including on social media, unless the instructor and the people involved give express written permission. Schools take this seriously and so should workplaces.
Last, encourage employees to come up with their own strategies for improvement. “A checklist works for me,” you can tell Tess. “What about you? What can motivate you to work more effectively? How can your supervisor help?”
Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at Lazada or Shopee, or the ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected].