Constructive feedback vs. targeting

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Q:  I think I have been unfairly targeted by my supervisor.  He seems to single me out regularly and criticize my work more quickly than the work of my peers.  I am conscientious and hard working. I have never felt like this before in 20 years.  He and I are very different but I am ok with that.  I appreciate those with different work styles.  It seems like my work style rubs him the wrong way.  Even the way I answer my office line, he tells me that I don’t sound positive or energetic.  Again, this is not something I have ever been told and others have given me quizzical looks when he criticizes me very aggressively.  He also likes to swear at me, which is unnerving to me.  What’s your advice Job Doc?

A: This sounds like a very challenging situation.  I have heard similar concerns before and sometimes it is because an employee is overly sensitive to feedback but, from the limited information that you have shared, it sounds like he may be more critical of you versus your peers.

Here is what I would do.  I would start a log of your concerns.  Include the date, time and a description of the incident.  Note also if your peers are noticing his comments.  If you are able, try to describe the context.  If he is using inappropriate language, a condescending tone or rolling his eyes, describe that too.

I would ask others, if they have noticed, how he interacts with you.  Some may be reluctant to speak up, but they may confirm your concerns.  Ask in a non-threatening way.  “Hey Jess.  Let me ask you a question.  I feel like sometimes Tom is heavy-handed with me.  Have you notice that also?”  Jess may confirm your concern or she may tell you that she doesn’t see exactly what you see.  Either way this is helpful information to have.

Depending upon your relationship with Tom, you may be able to talk to him in a way that he does not feel attacked.  If you have a monthly or quarterly meeting, you could ask him a question like: “I am sure I can improve upon the way I answer the phone, but I have never been given this feedback before.  Sometimes I feel like you are a bit tougher on me than you are on my peers.  Does this ring true to you?”  It will be telling in how he responds.  Will he acknowledge your concerns?  Will he be surprised?  Will he be angry?  This may give you a glimpse of how he may or may not be willing to adapt.

Also, read your employee handbook.  There may be a policy within the handbook that discusses respectful workplace behavior or a code of conduct.

If you have a Human Resources function, it may be worth contacting a representative to raise your concerns.  There may be some risks with this option, as sometimes HR won’t take a stance.  However, if others have come forward to raise issues around Tom’s behavior, then that is helpful.

If you have noticed that these behaviors are directed to you and you think it may be because of your gender, race or another legally-protected characteristic, it might be helpful to consult an employment attorney.  A more detailed review of the circumstances may be advised.

Finally, brainstorm other employment options, as a back-up plan.  Think about other opportunities within your company.  Dust off your resume and update it.  Start connecting with others within your industry.  It is an uncertain world and most of us are “at-will” employees, which means the company or the employee can end the employment relationship at any time.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.