What you’ll learn to do: Write a business message criticizing internal or external business situations.
Critical messages are a different category of business messages, and there are different types of critical messages. How would you write a critical message to an outside company you are not associated with versus a critical message to a customer? How would you write a critical message to a subordinate or a colleague?
- Differentiate between different types of criticism in business
- Write an external critical message to a company you’re not associated with
- Write an external critical message to an existing customer
- Write an internal critical message to a person you manage
- Write an internal critical message to another colleague
Types of Criticism
What is the definition of criticism? Webster’s defines is as “the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of a person or thing; the act of criticizing someone or something; a remark or comment that expresses disapproval of someone or something.” Criticism in the workplace is generally imagined as situations around a manager and a subordinate, but it is not limited to that. Constructive, sometimes negative, thoughts and comments can also be applied to the actions of colleagues, customers, or vendors—basically persons, groups or things that do not meet the expectations of the beholder. We will discuss these topics in more detail in a later section.
How do you write about issues in the workplace that are negative or need improvement? When putting criticism into writing, the technique will vary based on the situation—who is performing the criticism and who or what is being criticized. Written criticism in the workplace may be approached in a direct versus indirect style, a constructive style, or an active versus passive voice style.
Here are some examples of active voice versus passive voice style:
Active voice: I cannot authorize your entertainment entries on your expense report.
Passive voice: Entertainment entries are no longer covered in our expense policy.
Active voice: Company policy prevents us from offering direct deposit until employees have been on the job for 3 months.
Passive voice: Direct deposit is offered only after employees have been on the job for 3 months.
The goal of constructive criticism is to improve the behavior or the behavioral results of a person while consciously avoiding personal attacks and blaming. This kind of criticism is carefully framed in language acceptable to the target person, often acknowledging that the critics themselves could be wrong. Insulting and hostile language is avoided, and phrases are used such as, “I feel…” and “It’s my understanding that…” and so on. Constructive critics try to stand in the shoes of the person being criticized and consider what the situation would look like from their perspective.
Direct versus indirect written criticism style involves the order in which the criticism, the reasons for the criticism, the “buffer” and the close are structured in the message. Using the indirect style is best for reducing resentment and keeping employees open to receiving bad news constructively.
Here is an example of direct-style written criticism:
To: Ned Turner
From: Nancy White
Subject: Your Social Media Use At Work
[Criticism] You must cease your social media use during business hours at once.
[Reasons] Company management believes that it is too great a risk to allow employees to use social media while on the job. They worry that you could compromise sensitive company information. At the very least, much time is probably being wasted online when productive work could be done.
[Close] We appreciate your compliance.
Here is an example of indirect-style written criticism:
To: Ned Turner
From: Nancy White
Subject: Your Social Media Use At Work
[Buffer] The company greatly appreciates the insights gained from your activity on social media. The information has been quite helpful in revising our future product plans.
[Reasons] However, management has seen cases from other companies where sensitive information has inadvertently been shared with the public. The interactivity of social media has raised concerns that even well-intentioned use could be risky, and usage by younger employees could be more of a personal rather than professional nature.
[Criticism] For these reasons, we ask that you refrain from using social media while on the job.
[Close] You are a great employee, and we sincerely value you and your hard work for the company.
Criticism of Other Businesses
Writing a critical message to an unassociated company should follow the following guidelines:
- Be professional.
- Use direct writing structure in most cases.
- Be clear and concise.
- Be fair and even.
In these critical communications to a third party, it is best to get right to the point. Explain the situation clearly and concisely, including all relevant facts. Be fair and even so that you can maintain a good professional relationship with the company.
Here is an example of a critical message to a third party.
To: Customer Service: Franklin Illumination
From: Helen Hubka
Subject: Your Sub-Standard Performance For Our Gala
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing on behalf of the Jones Company regarding your service at out gala last week where your company was contracted to provide lighting.
We are extremely disappointed with the performance of your company. First, the lighting was not consistent with what your salesperson had promised. Instead of four banks of spots, there were only three. That left the entire coffee area in the dark for the evening. Second, the motorized lighting that was to follow the speakers from side-stage to the podium was completely non-functional. We were told by your technician that there was a “computer glitch.” Finally, the special audience illumination at the end of the award presentation did not come on in time.
Before you send us the final invoice, we believe there should be some remuneration for the lapses in your service that evening.
Director of Operations
This example follows the listed guidelines fairly closely. The point of the message is clearly stated in the message subject line. The tone of the message is professional and even, despite the firmness of the language. The message contained three examples illustrating the reason for the criticism. The close requested compensation for the poor performance, which should come as no surprise given the body of the message.
Criticism of Customers
We have discussed the importance of happy, satisfied customers to the success of a business. But what if an issue arises that necessitates a critical message to an existing customer?
When the need to send a critical message to a customer arises, we should take a step back and think through several factors. What is the exact outcome we desire? How can we communicate firmly yet tactfully so as to maintain our good business relationship? What facts need to be included in the message?
The indirect strategy would be best for a critical message to a customer. Such a message should start with some complementary language about how the relationship is valued. Next, a full explanation of the facts of the matter and any context should be given. After this buffer, the criticism or critique should be revealed, followed by a warm closing.
To: Mike Cross
From: Bill Langely
Subject: Could I ask for your assistance on an important matter?
I hope this message finds you well.
It is hard to believe that we have been doing business for over 10 years. The relationship between our companies has been mutually beneficial, and we hope to continue working with you for another decade.
As you may know, we have contracted out our A/P department to a third-party company. They rely on a different financial system than the one we used in all of our prior dealings with your company. Apparently, this system cannot handle your firm applying credit memos to our invoices directly; they must be handled as separate line items. As a result, several of our invoices to you are now showing as late or delinquent. Our finance folks and yours have had several calls on this matter, but apparently your staff wants to continue the older process because it is easier for them. Yours is the only company that still maintains this Payable practice.
I think perhaps you meeting with your CFO would go a long way to satisfy this issue.
We look forward to working with you and your marketing team on our joint efforts at the June trade show. I feel positive about strengthening our relationship as business partners and the bright future ahead.
This example message follows the indirect strategy for a critical written communication. The subject line gets attention but delays the bad news until after the buffer. The opening is pleasant and complimentary. The buffer attempts to explain the necessary facts and context, e.g., Mike’s company is the only one with the problem process. The bad news is passive voice (instead of: “Can I ask you to get involved directly to meet with your CFO to resolve this matter?”). The close avoids referring to the problem and instead has a pleasant, future-looking statement.
Criticism of Employees
The best way to write a critical message to a subordinate is to keep it as constructive as possible. Employees are the ultimate competitive advantage and must be valued. Your performance as a manager largely depends on the performance of your subordinates.
The goal of constructive criticism is to improve the behavior or the behavioral results of a person while consciously avoiding personal attacks and blaming. This kind of criticism is carefully framed in language acceptable to the target person, sometimes acknowledging that the critics themselves could be wrong.
Insulting and hostile language is avoided, and phrases used are like “I feel…” and “It’s my understanding that…” and so on. Constructive critics try to stand in the shoes of the person being criticized, and consider what things would look like from their perspective.
Effective criticism should be:
- Positively intended, and appropriately motivated: you are not only sending back messages about how you are receiving the other’s work but about how you feel about the other person and your relationship with him/her. Keeping this in mind will help you to construct effective critiques.
- Specific, allowing the individual to know exactly what behavior is to be considered.
- Objective, so that the recipient not only gets the message but is willing to do something about it. If your criticism is objective, it is much harder to resist.
- Constructive: consciously avoiding personal attacks, blaming, insulting language or hostile language. Avoiding evaluative language such as “you are wrong” or “that idea was stupid” reduces the likelihood that the receiver will respond defensively.
As the name suggests, the consistent and central notion is that the criticism must have the aim of constructing, scaffolding, or improving a situation, a goal that is usually subverted by the use of hostile language or personal attacks.
Effective criticism can change what people think and do; thus, criticism is the birthplace of change. Effective criticism can also be liberating. It can fight ideas that keep people down with ideas that unlock new opportunities while consciously avoiding personal attacks and blaming.
Here is a video that provides more details on how to deliver negative feedback effectively:
Criticism of Colleagues
As the workplace shifts to a more team-oriented, cross-functional environment, employees are being asked to provide feedback on colleagues on a regular basis. This can be a good thing because personal performance need not rely exclusively on the evaluation of one individual manager. Who better to provide feedback than a fellow teammate that has daily interaction with a colleague?
It does not take long to realize that providing feedback on a coworker could be uncomfortable, especially if there is criticism involved. This would be a situation in which a constructive writing strategy would be useful. Here are some guidelines to ensure that your critical comments are perceived constructively:
- Direct your comments at the behavior and not the person.
- Keep the tone of your message neutral and objective—think about how you would feel reading the same comments about yourself.
- Try to include positive behaviors as well as behavior to be improved.
- Suggest positive steps in resolving the issue.
Here are some examples of constructive criticism addressed to a co-worker.