How to criticise your boss without getting fired

Dominic Wise of HR consultancy and technology provider ETS gives some advice on how to question your boss’s decisions and keep your job.

woman criticising female boss


We’ve all experienced it at some point in our careers – that feeling of working for a boss which you simply don’t respect. Whether it’s their brash attitude, the awful decisions they make, their favouritism of certain colleagues or annoying ‘corporate speak’ in meetings…

It can be hard to turn up to work and feel motivated if your boss won’t acknowledge the effort you put in, takes credit for your ideas or heaps praise on certain people in the office while you remain ignored.

So how can you get round this? How can you criticise your boss, without losing your job?

Believe it or not you can make your feelings known without having to worry, it just takes a bit of work on your part. With that in mind, here’s a few tips you can use if you’re in this unfortunate situation.

1. Think about your impact

The first thing you need to think about, if you’re definitely sure you want to go ahead and criticise your boss, is the impact it could have. Never, and repeat never, criticise your boss in a public setting (unless of course you have a back-up plan in place – see point #5 below!).

By criticising your boss in public you are only asking for trouble – and possibly the sack. Not only does it look unprofessional (should you suddenly pipe up in a meeting and say “you’re wrong!”) it creates an awkward atmosphere in both your business and amongst your colleagues. It will set the rumour mill into overtime, and you’ll be known as ‘that’ person who dared to say ‘that’ forever more.

2. Your motivation

When criticising your boss, your motivation needs to be carefully considered. Are you criticising your boss because of a real desire to help them change their habits, or do you want to criticise them because you want them removed from their position of leadership? If it’s the latter you may need to think again – if they really are a bad boss then their failings will come to light sooner, rather than later, and your management will be forced to act. If you are motivated by a genuine concern for them then you’ll be more likely to succeed.

3. Don’t be personal

That brings us to our next point – your tone. If you’re sure you want to go ahead with the criticism, then you need to give proactive criticisms which they can work on, rather than personal. Ask them for a discreet chat or meeting over email to discuss business performance. You need to make sure that they think your concerns are motivated by a desire to make them look good – for example you could say “we seem to be low on team morale / we seem to be underperforming in this area…”.

Whatever it is, make sure your comments are framed in the context of getting good results for the company as a whole – with any luck they will ask you what you think needs to be done, which is when you can come back with your constructive criticism.

4. Take it higher

If your boss doesn’t take kindly to your constructive comments, be prepared to counter. Make sure you stress that you did not mean to offend and that you were just concerned about how they came across to others or how their decision/s could negatively impact the company. If this happens then you may be forced to take your criticism higher up in the company, so have a document prepared with your evidence.

Lay out your concerns and how your manager’s decisions have had a detrimental impact – whether that’s on your work, your feelings or your company as a whole. It can be awkward if your criticisms get fed back to your boss, so only take this approach if you have a good working relationship with those directly responsible for your manager.

5. Have a back-up plan in place

These tips are all well and good if you actually like your job, if you really can’t stand your boss and just can’t work for them anymore, then it could be time to move on and look for a new job. Before you begin your hunt, start off by documenting everything you don’t like about your boss – from the comments they make to the way they don’t give you credit for a job well done. This will become your main source of evidence should you ever need to file a formal complaint during your job hunt – plus it will serve as a good reminder of the good work that you do when you have your exit interview.

With any luck you will find a job and get that new position sorted quickly – but in today’s tough economic climate that can be easier said than done. This is why your evidence document is so important. Once you get your new job secured you can be free to criticise your boss without fear or reprisals!

To sum up..

If you’ve got a difficult boss you have our every sympathy. It’s never nice turning up for work, fearing what they’ll say, what they’ll do or watch yet another mistake they’ll make. You need to develop strong interpersonal and political skills to try and change the situation, but given that you’ll probably run into more than one difficult boss in the course of your career just think of it as a learning experience. Good luck!!

*Dominic Wake is Director of ETS where is he is responsible for leading human resource projects across performance management, development and engagement. For more information on ETS and the employee feedback surveys it provides, please see the website.

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