Critical Exception to ‘Correct in Private’ Rule.


The below article challenges the time-honoured management practice of  ‘praise in public, correct in private’. It was published in the HR Reporter Magazine.

It’s time to challenge an indisputable tenet of of good management.

If you are a devout follower of the “Praise Publicly, Correct Privately” rule, I invite you to reconsider.

I realize that in suggesting this, I’m bumping up against a time-honoured tradition. As early as 35 BC, Publilius Syrus asserted: “Admonish your friends privately, but praise them openly”.  In the 18th Century, Russia’s Catherine the Great stated that she likes to “praise and reward loudly, to blame quietly“. And Vince Lombardi, the famed football coach, stated that his recipe for team success relied on a “praise in public, criticize in private” paradigm.

There are good reasons why this rule has gained such traction. It helps maintain people’s sense of dignity. It helps avoid resistance and anger amongst team members in response to criticizing a colleague in public. And let’s face it, people respond better to criticism when there is no ‘observer effect’.

But here’s the catch: when it comes to maintaining a civil, respectful workplace, the ‘correct privately’ notion is not only flawed, it is potentially harmful. In fact, in the respect arena the opposite applies:  “what’s done in public is corrected publicly”.

When public behaviour that is uncivil or offensive takes place with no managerial response, employees will rightfully conclude that this behaviour is condoned. Furthermore, by responding in private and not publicly, you miss invaluable opportunities for setting the standard, for all to grasp and follow.

The Barriers

It’s easy to say that “what’s done in public is corrected publicly”, but in real life there are several formidable barriers to overcome.

At the heart of these barriers lie HR and managerial attitudes and fears that interfere with getting things done right.

First, there’s a pervasive aversion to confrontation in the Canadian workplace. As diverse as we have become, the workplace still seems to follow a ‘being nice at all cost’ imperative.  It’s not “The Canadian Way” to deal with controversial issues directly and publicly. The task becomes exceedingly difficult against a backdrop of a longstanding ‘correct in private’ tradition.  

Second, many managers and HR professionals want to be liked. To confront someone publicly regarding an off-colour joke or comment threatens this ingrained emotional need.

Third, even if they wanted to respond in public, most managers and HR professionals are not sure exactly how to respond. And without the skill set, we tend to avoid it altogether.

Finally, most situations involving offensive or crossing-the-line behaviour happen very fast. It may be a comment, a sneer, a joke, a gesture. The speed in which things happen, often in the midst of a busy environment, makes it difficult to respond immediately.

Mistakes to Avoid

There are three common mistakes to avoid when responding in public to any respect-related situation.

As a manager or an HR professional, avoid using ‘I statements’ in these situations. Don’t say “I was offended by that joke”. Instead, use “jokes that focus on people’s physical attributes are not appropriate in our environment”. The purpose of correcting offensive behaviour is to create common standards and to enforce organizational values. Whether or not you personally were offended is, frankly, irrelevant.

(When it comes to non-managerial staff, ‘I statements’ certainly do have their rightful place in the respect arena. In fact, they are the single most important tool for employees to deal directly with offensive situations. However, for managers and HR, they are a definite ‘no-no’).

Another common pitfall is the use of humour when correcting in public. Humour is a wonderful tool, but when it comes to correcting behaviour, you can bet that no one will get the message and your objectives won’t be met. You can use a light touch, but trying to stop behaviour by using pure humour is counter-productive.

Finally, never dispute the accuracy or whatever has been said. If someone makes a comment that characterizes a certain ethnic group as having certain characterises, never say “well, actually that is factually incorrect. The truth is that people of this group…..”. By doing so, you are inadvertently deepening the offensive discussion that stereotypes groups of people. Besides, you’re opening the door to a debate, and chances are that you’ll find yourself losing this debate.

Doing it right

The objectives of any public response are always the same, regardless of the specifics of the situation: Get the behaviour to stop.  Send a clear message to observers. Maintain the dignity of those involved. And, of course, reinforce organizational values.

Correcting publicly is a delicate and complex affair. The challenge is to do it well while still meeting these objectives. Here are some options to consider:

  • Now or later? Sometimes it makes sense to respond on the spot, other times to respond later. Sometimes a combination of immediate + later is required. My experience facilitating Respect sessions across sectors suggests that most managers and HR professionals have a knee-jerk ‘let’s do it later’ reaction. Often this as a manifestation of the aversion to controversy discussed above. I recommend that whenever possible, one should respond immediately, not wait for ‘domani’ (tomorrow). As in Perry Como’s lyrics, somehow “domani never comes”.
  • Light touch or heavy-handed?  Some situations require a light touch response. Others require a heavy-handed one. You may choose to use a phrase such as “guys, let’s cut it out, we don’t talk that way here” or a heavier “this type of talk is unacceptable, and in fact constitutes harassment under our Harassment Policy. Continuing with this can be subject to serious consequences”.  It’s your choice, depending on the circumstances.
  • Short or long? Depending on the variables of the situation, a short ‘n sweet response may be best. Other times, a longer, more educational approach is warranted. A longer, educational approach might be: “This type of banter can make people feel uncomfortable. Even if there’s no one around who seems to be affected, we aim to maintain a respectful environment at all times. It helps us live up to our values and create the inclusive environment we want to be proud of”.

Good judgement is key in deciding which approach or combination of approaches to use. Responding in public to respect issues takes both courage and skill. And it sure is worth it! 




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