Ethics Coach

How to Handle Employees Who Avoid Criticism

This story appears in the April 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
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Q: I have an employee who’s bright and confident but has a chip on his shoulder that makes him resistant to feedback. What’s the best way to talk to him about his work? 

A: Arrogance often masks fear. If you haven’t established a basis for trust in your relationship, it will be difficult for your employee to see that perceived criticisms are intended to support his success in the company. Though he needs to shift his attitude and learn how to accept feedback, he’s not the only one who may need to make a change. 

It’s essential that you take a look at how you demonstrate empathy and clarify what is expected of him. That may reduce the fear sufficiently so he can hear what you are saying. Also, make sure your feedback isn’t of the drive-by variety (especially when other employees are within earshot) and that, in addition to pointing out areas for growth, you acknowledge the value of what he brings to the table. 

In Thanks for the Feedback, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen explain that the obvious—but often neglected—way to give actionable feedback is to be specific and clear about what the employee needs to do differently and, most important, why. It’s also necessary to fill him in on how to achieve better outcomes. Why invest the empathy and time in trying to help a difficult person figure out his resistance to his own development? Clearly he has some good qualities that have kept you from giving up on him. Perhaps a new openness in your working relationship will allow him to feel safe enough to make needed changes.    

Q: We are considering creating a few positions for unpaid interns this summer. Given the job market, talented college students should be glad to gain experience and references for their résumés. However, I don’t want to burden my team with time-consuming mentoring. How do we create a mutually beneficial experience?  

A: “Mutually beneficial” is one thing with a job and another with an unpaid internship. The learning experience and in-the-field training you offer students should be of great value to them—more than enough to compensate them for what they’re giving up by not spending their time at a minimum-wage job. It isn’t an ethical arrangement if you think it’s enough for them to just pick up what education they can as they’re plugged into whatever departments need extra hands. (And you need to realize that using unpaid labor to do jobs you would otherwise pay someone for could result in fines and give your lawyer major heartburn.) 

Since mentoring is at the heart of any internship, check in with your team before you advertise for interns. Would your employees enjoy teaching the interns about your industry and company, as well as supervising their work? Or would they feel it’s a burden? Some team members who enjoy working with young people (or who may have had children whose career choices were positively influenced by internships) may consider the opportunity a perk and a great way to give back, which in turn can energize their own work. 

If you go forward, make sure prospective interns know exactly what is expected of them and what they can expect in return for their work. Unsure about how to structure an internship? Check out, the website of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or contact a local college’s career center for suggestions. 

Edition: October 2016

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