How to Deal
Don't let an employee's pronunciation problems impede his performance
Thursday, November 5, 2009; 1:45 PM
I've been the manager of a small team for about four years, and they are usually low-maintenance, so I haven't yet had to deal with many issues that I don't know how to handle. We give presentations to and interact with hundreds of our colleagues every week. Our newest team member has a great personality, is very intelligent, is well-liked and he gets great reviews for the one-on-one presentations that he delivers. There are some aspects of his group presentations that need work: He's easily distracted by off-topic or long-answer questions, sometimes not as organized as he should be and sometimes gets thrown off or confused about topics with which he is otherwise very familiar. I feel confident that I can work with him to improve these issues. Every time I have given feedback to this employee, he has been grateful, not at all defensive and glad to have a chance to improve.
However, there's one issue that I don't know how to address. He mispronounces words that come up a LOT in our sessions (or uses the wrong word): "Libary" instead of "libRary" and "mines" instead of "mine" are a couple of examples that come to mind. I have received a few course evaluations in which the students have mentioned the mispronunciations, but I think it will hurt his feelings to tell him about this. Do you agree or is that something I would tell him?
I'm having trouble with this because it feels impolite to correct someone's pronunciation. I know it will be helpful to him in the long run, if he is going to continue working in the corporate world (this is his first corporate job), but I don't know how to bring it up.
Your employee needs to know about valid feedback provided by people who attend his classes, as well as your own observations regarding his performance. Otherwise, you cannot expect him to improve. It would be appropriate for you to shield your employee from evaluation remarks that are ad hominem or gratuitously harsh. If you think that there is a sound basis for an observation, however, you should share it.
I find it interesting that you feel confident about addressing such sensitive issues as your employee's lack of focus, organization and clarity of thought, yet you hesitate to address his pronunciation of words. I suspect that you draw the line at correcting your employee's speech because it strikes you as the sort of thing that should not remain an issue at this point in a person's life. You may have no problem correcting a child who is confused about the meaning of words or saying them wrong, but addressing the same sort of critique to an adult, however justified, feels condescending. Coaching someone to say "library" instead of "libary" feels a bit like reminding them to comb their hair or zip up their fly. Even though it is a legitimate critique and one that affects the quality of a presentation in important ways, it is embarrassing to bring it up.
But the embarrassment to your employee of allowing him to continue to give presentations that incorporate these mispronunciations is far greater. He will surely be mortified to learn that he has been making such obvious and fundamental mistakes in a public forum. But he will also be grateful to you for helping him to achieve a level of polish that will lend credibility and impact to what he is saying.
When you have this conversation with your employee, acknowledge the many ways in which he has been good at his job and express your desire to help him to transform his raw talent into a consistent and sophisticated presentation style. Then bring up the four developmental areas that you indentified in your question to me. When you introduce your concern regarding mispronunciation, do so by listing a few specific examples of what you and others have observed and explain what the correct pronunciation would have been. Elicit feedback from your employee about what he thinks of this. He may already be aware of the problem and welcome your assistance in correcting it. His use of incorrect speech may be a nervous reaction to a stressful situation, in which case the antidote might be to find ways to build his confidence rather than simply addressing the resulting speech pattern. In other words, open a dialogue about the issue, what is causing it and what you can do to help him move beyond it.
Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.