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Radical Candour - what is it and should employers be using it?

Kate Robinson and Nigel Mackay explore whether the “radical candour” management technique should be adopted by employers in the UK and if it throws up any employment law concerns.

Radical candour
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Nigel is an employment law specialist and blogs on discrimination and employment law matters, you can follow Nigel on twitter @nigelmackay
Radical candour is a new management technique straight out of Silicon Valley, with the mission statement “Be a kickass boss without losing your humanity.” The method is the brainchild of Kim Scott, and its origin story includes a veritable who’s who of the US technology sector. Scott has coached CEOs at Dropbox and Twitter, reported to Sheryl Sandberg whilst working at Google, and is currently a faculty member at Apple University.

The central principle of radical candour is that that managers should focus on giving staff immediate, honest feedback and should also be prepared to receive this in return. The rallying cry is “Just say it!” When giving feedback, managers must try to avoid falling into the traps of “manipulative insincerity”, “ruinous empathy” and “obnoxious aggression”. Managers should also “care personally” for their staff and be open to discussing personal problems.  

After taking off in the US, radical candour is spreading to the UK, with a number of start-up businesses adopting the practice.

Proponents of radical candour extol its potential benefits. These include an end to office politics through clear and upfront feedback, and promoting efficiency by challenging staff immediately rather than waiting for the next appraisal. It has also been claimed that the method empowers junior staff to challenge poor management practices without fear of retribution. However, it’s not difficult to imagine that the implementation could fall foul of employment law. 

One example of the immediate, clear feedback given by a start-up business using the method was one colleague telling another that they were being “mopey”. There is a danger that such feedback may be discriminatory if the individual criticised suffers from  a mental health condition, or if their perceived demeanour could be shown to relate to another protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Feedback of this nature could constitute harassment under the Act.

Employers would also need to ensure that any feedback policy incorporating radical candour did not constitute an indirectly discriminatory PCP (provision, criterion or practice) under section 19 of the Act.

For instance, some staff might use the technique to criticise others who are not available remotely outside office hours, even if it may not be possible for other staff to check emails and take calls outside working hours for a number of reasons, including childcare responsibilities or health issues.

If a policy encourages giving immediate feedback, staff may do so without consulting HR or considering equality and diversity materials to consider the implications of their comments. Remarks that may seem fair and neutral to one colleague will not be to others.  This could be exacerbated if the policy includes repeating feedback staff have received at team meetings. 

Occasionally, feedback could be sufficient to breach the implied term of trust and confidence in the employment contract. Where feedback constitutes a material breach of the employment contract, the employee could resign in response and claim unfair dismissal, along with any other discrimination claims.

On the other hand, it is possible that radical candour could actually help managers avoid discrimination by encouraging employees to confide in their employer and share information about their personal lives. Indeed, a close relationship and open communication is championed by Scott. However, constant pressure to disclose personal information, which may be distressing to discuss, could itself be harassment or a breach of trust and confidence. More generally, employees may have good reason to refrain from disclosing certain information to avoid stigmatisation.

Radical candour has laudable aims at its core, specifically creating openness in the workplace and assisting employee development. However, as with other policies, employers adopting the approach must take care that these are not defeated by implementation which leaves room for discrimination.

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