employee feedback

Providing better employee feedback is an important way to retain key personnel as the economy picks up and members of your work force face the lure of other jobs.

The trick is to hit upon the right formula. Give employees too much positive reinforcement and they may drift and lose focus. Bombard them with constructive criticism – even if it's well intentioned – and they may tune out.  Too much correction can backfire and accelerate turnover, leaving you mired in the costly, time-consuming process of hiring and training replacements.

To find a proper balance, many human resources specialists suggest the "praise sandwich." Start with a slice of praise, layer on constructive criticism or direction – the meat of your message – and finish off with another heap of praise.

"It's a nice way to present information in a way that another person will receive it," said Atul Teckchandani, who teaches leadership at the Center for Entrepreneurship at Cal State University, Fullerton. "Employees want to know how they're doing, but more importantly how they can improve." Another way to make the feedback more palatable, Teckchandani said, is to keep the process informal. As much as possible, have an ongoing, collaborative dialogue.

"It's very much a conversation," he said. "It's not a report card."

These additional pointers should help you keep your employees productive and happy:

  • Don't try to be General Patton – or even Vince Lombardi. In combat, when lives are at stake, military commanders may need to yell and scream, said HR expert Thomas M. Anderson, a former U.S. Marine Corps pilot in Vietnam. But the modern workplace is a different story. No matter what, supervisors should not be losing their cool with employees. "You're dealing with adults," said Anderson, a longtime advisor with the Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management, a nationwide advisory network. "If an employee makes a mistake, you say, 'This is what you did wrong. These are our expectations going forward.'" Football coaches might still resort to yelling on the sidelines, but the first lesson for employers is always to treat associates with respect, Anderson said.

  • Feedback is too important to be dispensed only once a year. "Daily feedback and interaction does wonders," said Lynda Zugec, managing director of The Workforce Consultants, a worldwide network of HR consultants based in New York. Some firms have eliminated the annual performance appraisal, preferring to evaluate employees in the normal course of business. Zugec advocates for both: formal reviews, held twice a year, augmented by ongoing discussions of goals and achievements. The formal reviews reinforce priorities, she said, plus they offer a chance to document a poor employee's failures in case it becomes legally important.

  • Dream big, and keep everyone in the loop. A buzzword in HR today is "engagement," the idea that employees feel personally invested in the company's future. You can only create that esprit de corps by clearly communicating your vision, writes Kim E. Ruyle, a consultant with the Society for Human Resource Management and author of the book, "Lessons From a CEO's Journal: Leading Talent and Innovation." Kim insists that employees "need to understand your strategy. If they don’t understand the route, you can’t expect that their efforts will propel you in the right direction." Being engaged is not the same as being happy or satisfied, Kim adds. Engagement is about a sense of responsibility, which outweighs contentment for a company striving to improve.

  • Have a plan for the weak links. Inevitably, some employees fall short. Are they worth rehabilitating? If so, define a path to success. "Maybe your employee is supposed to make 50 widgets in a day, and he's only making five," said June Jeong, founder and CEO of eqHR Solutions, an HR consulting firm in Aliso Viejo, California. "If you tell him to make 50 widgets, he will probably fail." Instead, ask him to make 10 widgets, then later 15 – with 50 being the goal in a specified time period. Of course, some employees are just lousy employees. Give them the old heave-ho, said Randy Moon of RMoon Consulting in Dallas. "You need to fire the people doing a bad job," he said. "Other employees often appreciate that."

  • Reward your stars. Top performers deserve special treatment, some experts say. Raises are great, but surveys suggest money is not the greatest motivator, said Anderson. Keep your best people happy by offering non-monetary perks, such as pairing them with supervisors they like. Offer bonuses, rather than salary hikes. Cite employee triumphs in the company blog. Challenge them with special assignments. Above all, make sure you recognize they have a life outside of work – let them take a few hours to attend a daughter's softball game – and show appreciation for extra effort. "Catch them doing something good and tell them," Moon said. "Everybody, from children on up, needs to be patted on the back."

  • Give employees the last word. Turn the tables and ask them to review the company. More than a few executives brace at the thought, said Jeong. "They're like, 'Why would we want feedback from employees? What could they possibly tell us?'" Well, plenty. They see the company in operation every day – and having a voice, getting to point out problems and suggest solutions, are great for morale. There's one caveat, however. If you ask, listen – and if you don't follow the advice, because a suggestion is too costly, for example, be prepared to explain why, rather than leave the impression that you simply did not care.