Equal treatment requires equal feedback, good and bad

  • Published
  • By Col. Linda Eaton
  • 55th Medical Group commander
Giving or receiving performance feedback is easy when an employee is meeting or exceeding expectations. However, it's much more difficult to give or receive negative feedback . By "negative feedback" I mean informal counseling up to minor disciplinary action and by "employee" I include military or civilian. This difficulty can be especially true if the supervisor has concerns about counter allegations of prejudice, favoritism or unfairness for example. However, equal employee treatment requires equal feedback, good and bad. 

If you're a supervisor giving negative feedback, it's possible the employee won't react well and not take responsibility for the issues in your feedback. And, you might have to answer to an inspector general, equal employment opportunity, union or congressional complaint and so on. But, if your feedback has merit, that doesn't mean you will be told you are wrong. 

I have given feedback that has required me to undergo such scrutiny. However, the decision on appropriateness normally has gone in my favor. While it wasn't pleasant to undergo the scrutiny, I knew I'd done what I thought was right for the person and the organization. 

The majority of the time when I gave negative feedback, the people involved thanked me and often added that no one had taken the time to give them feedback meant to improve their performance before. I'm often struck by that because sometimes these people have been operating outside of normally accepted performance for some time before they came to my attention. What seemed like obvious problems hadn't been pointed out to them. Therefore, they were in jeopardy of continuing to perform incorrectly and indeed becoming worse employees. In most cases, they did improve as a result of the feedback and some became an even more loyal employee. 

Sometimes poor performance can escalate to an act which drives discipline that won't be questioned due to the acts severity. The questions become, could you have prevented that act if you had intervened earlier when the behavior was not so severe, even knowing you might have to answer to some kind of complaint? Have you truly given that person equal treatment? 

Now, let's look at the perspective of the person receiving the feedback. Are you taking the feedback in the spirit it's intended? My experience is that supervisors appreciate people that can take negative feedback and improve. In fact, it drives supervisors to provide more feedback (both good and bad) which makes the employee an even better performer. The supervisor can even become a "mentor" throughout the individual's career. However, if negative feedback isn't received well, the supervisor thinks twice before pointing out other shortcomings and the employee can stagnate or spiral down to the point that he or she can lose his or her job due to an easily justifiable pattern of unacceptable performance. 

Just as I've been under scrutiny for giving negative feedback, I've been a victim of a lack of negative feedback. As a young officer, I discovered that my supervisor hadn't been counseling me on issues that his supervisor had with my performance. Why that was the case is up for debate. Regardless, it did cause me some difficulty as some career damage was done by the time I discovered there was a problem. Fortunately, there were no long term consequences. 

Therefore, whether you're giving or receiving negative feedback meant to improve behavior, make the most of it. Do it early enough to allow the employee to improve before it has to be reflected through discipline or low performance report marks. And if you receive negative but constructive feedback, be thankful someone cared enough to take the time to clue you in that you aren't up to their standards - especially if you get it before career damage is done. 

Fight for feedback good and bad! Equal treatment when it comes to not only positive, but negative feedback, will ensure all employees have a chance to be the best they can be.