Workplace Culture

HR Feedback for Your Boss

By Kris Dunn

Nov. 26, 2008

So you’re in HR, a partner to whomever you serve. Guess what? That means you’re supposed to tell people when they’re messing up. For a lot of us, that’s easy when the target of the constructive feedback is an employee, or even the managers we serve in other departments. It gets trickier when we have to tell our bosses that there’s something rotten in Denmark related to, well, them.

If you, as an HR professional, have been faced with giving your boss needed feedback, you will know that bosses come in one of these two different flavors:

  • Your boss is a line manager or business executive to whom you report directly. While the personalities and styles of the business-focused, non-HR boss are many, the common denominator here is they aren’t HR pros. You are. That means your relationship and communication style should be focused on the fact that you are the expert in the areas you cover. I’ve always found it easier to give straight feedback to the line managers and executives to whom I reported. After all, they aren’t in HR. So when you apply the people and culture stuff to them, they can easily rationalize it, thinking, “Well, you know, that’s why I’ve got you.” But that only works if your overall relationship with them makes them feel that way.
  • Your boss is an HR manager or HR executive to whom you report directly. If you report directly to an HR manager, HR director or HR vice president, giving feedback to your boss is usually either going to be really easy or really hard. When it’s easy, it flows as it should. The HR boss gets what you are saying and why you are saying it. But it’s not always like that. Sometimes, especially if the issue is an emotional one for them, it’s harder for the HR boss to hear the feedback you must provide. Deep in your heart, you know why: The boss is in the HR game, so he should likely be aware of what you are telling her. Except he isn’t. And yes, it’s very uncomfortable.

But like the boys from Depeche Mode once reminded the world, people are people. It’s the same with bosses, whether yours is in HR or is running the entire show. Even bosses need some straight talk from the HR pros before an oversight or blind spot mortally wounds them.

With that realty in mind, here’s my list of things to keep in mind once you decide to give the boss an “opportunity for improvement,” otherwise known as feedback or coaching:

  1. You’ve got to give to get. Mix positive reinforcement often. It’s a good practice and money in the bank when you need to make an “opportunity for improvement” withdrawal. If the boss has heard good stuff from you periodically, you’ll automatically have credibility with the challenges you eventually point out.

Positive reinforcement to the boss, while not necessary for your survival, is necessary if you want real dialog. The one-on-one opportunities are everywhere and don’t take a lot of time. For example, you can hit the boss with a private reply to a group e-mail they sent out that simply says “Nice job.” You can also share “heard on the street” feedback that’s positive about how the boss is viewed by the troops. The only limit is your imagination.

Actually, there’s another limitation. It’s the potential for you to feel like a brown-noser in giving positive feedback to the boss. You can avoid feeling like a suck-up by only sharing positives periodically, keeping it business-focused (skip the daily affirmations about boss attire), and above all else, being willing to share the negative as well.

  1. Timing is everything. Financials just came out and the division missed revenue by 20 percent, but you’ve got “Talk to boss” in your day planner? Don’t be a sucker. Kick your FranklinCovey binder across the room and live to fight another day.

You might hold on to the feedback for a month looking for the right time. That’s OK. Deliver it when the time is right. Be sensitive to the weather report that is your boss’s mood.

  1. Don’t throw someone else under the bus. When coaching for improvement to the boss as an HR pro, own your observation. Don’t say, “Johnny mentioned that you had an anger problem in the meeting”. By putting your observations on someone else, the boss wants to go tackle Johnny, not listen to you about the issue. If you’ve done a good job with positive feedback, your boss will listen to you when you need help from her, even regarding her own actions.

What if the boss still wants the name of a complainer? If you have a solid relationship with her, you’ll have to give the name, but only after you’ve provided the necessary context and the rundown of the feedback topic, and received her buy-in.

  1. Have the boss’s back once in awhile. As with the need for positive feedback, you’ve got to be there to take a bullet for the boss once in a while, or at least identify a sniper for her before you both go into a dicey meeting. If the boss knows you’ve acted like a Secret Service agent when needed, she’ll listen when you have something to say on the coaching front.

Think of yourself as the boss’s personal AWACS plane. If providing some context for a political situation in the office might help her stay out of the ditch, you’ll build credibility that can be cashed in later.

And the most important factor to consider when giving negative feedback to your boss:

  1. You’re not judging her; you’re her agent. No one likes to feel judged when getting negative feedback from a subordinate. But everyone likes to have an agent looking out for their corporate image. That’s why you’re going to have the boss’s back, so that you can lead coaching moments with something like the following: “Susan, you know I’m out there making it happen, but at the same time, I’m looking out for you. That’s why I have to make sure you understand that you shouldn’t have fired that coordinator on the spot in front of 25 people. Here’s how I think you should fix it so you’re not hurt by this long term.”

Be the Gladys Kravitz of the office, and the boss will hate you. Be the boss’s personal corporate-image agent, and you’ve got a chance to be heard and maybe, just maybe, get improvement in the area you need, when you need it.

Here’s a final note on the role of an upscale HR pro in today’s organization. (And when I say “upscale,” I mean that you have the personality and political skills to handle something in the right way. It has nothing to do with where you live or what car you drive.) Lots of people won’t challenge the boss or provide feedback under any circumstance. When things get crazy or a little strange, there’s just one individual all those people think could actually handle coaching the boss.

That person is you, the HR pro. When everyone is looking around but afraid to say something, that’s when your boss needs you the most. So advance the cause of upscale HR and do it, but start prepping for the need now by following the points listed above.

It’s not easy, but both you and the boss will be glad you did.

Kris Dunn is a Workforce contributing editor. Comment below or email

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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