It's not the words but the vocal inflections that can make all the difference when it comes to correcting employees. People who work in the sheet metal and HVAC industries are not known for touchy-feely sensitivity. Construction work has a tradition of gruff, straight-shooting relations between supervisors and subordinates. This culture can be summed up by some of the short phrases many of you are fond of using in orienting new employees to a job with your company:

"It's my way or the highway."

"I may not always be right, but I'm always the boss."

"Keep messing up and I'll kick your sorry butt to Kingdom Come!"

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating. Maybe you're a little more tuned into the nuances of interpersonal relationships than these stereotypes suggest. If so, you probably have a happy and stable work force and are wasting your time reading this column. It's really directed at those contractors for whom conflict with employees is the rule rather than the exception - and who are willing to concede that, at least sometimes, it may not be entirely the employee's fault.

Conflict in the workplace frequently arises out of criticism, either between supervisors and subordinates or co-workers of equal stature. But criticism sometimes is necessary. What's important is to understand the difference between constructive criticism and the destructive kind that comes from simply lashing out because of anger or frustration.

Here are 10 guidelines to ensure that criticism becomes constructive rather than destructive in the workplace.

  1. Understand the difference between criticism and discipline. Criticism is aimed at correcting honest mistakes or minor infractions. Discipline is a more serious step taken to change performance or behavior that will lead to termination if repeated. Every human is subject to criticism on occasion, but not everyone needs to be disciplined.
  2. Criticize the action, not the person. The fact that someone made a mistake doesn't make that person bad or incompetent. The best among us will make mistakes from time to time. A good thing to do in this regard is to couple criticism with statements that boost self-esteem. Example: "Ordering the wrong material cost us quite a bit of time and money. These catalogs and order forms are so confusing; it's easy to see how someone could goof up. Be extra careful next time you order."
  3. Be specific and don't exaggerate. "This is the third time you've been late this month" can be presented as an indisputable fact. Just saying, "You're always coming in late" is not likely to change behavior.

    Similarly, be sure that job performance can be measured in concrete terms. Insisting on "quality workmanship" will only lead to interpretations and arguments. You have to use specific measures such as defects reported or time spent on repairs.

  4. Be sure the behavior you're criticizing can be changed. The owner of a home-service firm once told me of a newly hired dispatcher who seemed to be doing a terrific job, except she had an aversion to paperwork. She always made excuses not to do it, and when pressed, made a mess of it. Turns out she had dyslexia. This never came out in the job interview. The contractor kept her employed and organized her job in a way that paperwork was minimized and could be performed by someone else.
  5. Use the word "we" rather than "you." "We need to turn in job tickets promptly" is better than saying "You need to turn in job tickets promptly." It doesn't sound so accusatory.
  6. Give reasons for the criticism. Many people do not like to blindly follow orders. They want to know why they are expected to do things a certain way.
  7. Anger, sarcasm, or a raised voice is never appropriate. Recognize overbearing behavior for what it is.
  8. Don't belabor the point. Constructive criticism is short - not a lecture. Document the problem with a short note in the employee's file and then move on.
  9. Cool off before putting it in writing. Sometimes criticism needs to be conveyed in writing. But do so only after a decent interval that allows you to collect your thoughts and anger to dissipate. Writing something down provides a permanent record, for better or worse, of your state of mind. It could come back to haunt you - or the person criticized - in a way that even harsh spoken words might not.

    Written criticism (again, differentiated from discipline) should be coupled with expressions of confidence and support of the recipient: "In general, you've done a fine job and I'm sure you'll continue to be a valuable employee, but you need to take care to avoid these problems."

  10. Never criticize in front of other employees. Praise in public and criticize in private. Make this a management mantra to live by and instill it in all of your supervisors.