I was meeting friends for dinner. Most were older distinguished professionals. A younger man arrived and someone asked him how his day had gone. He immediately launched into a blow-by-blow account of a frustrating work experience fresh on his mind. When he finally stopped to take a breath, one in our party asked, "Are you talking about Jim?" A bit surprised that Jim was known to someone, he put the best face on it and replied, "No. Jim is a great guy. I like Jim. The problem is with the system of management." Well, Jim is the manager, so it seemed clear enough that he was, in fact, complaining about Jim.
Since then I've reflected on that episode, and noted a few reasons to avoid criticizing employers, co-workers or anybody, for that matter, in public.
Unbeknown to you, your subject might be a relative or friend of someone listening, and the hearer be offended. When I opened a business in a new town a customer wished me well and asked how I liked it so far. "Great", I replied, but I continued to remark about some odd things I noticed.
"It seems like everyone around here is related to everyone else. Almost all I've met are Smiths or Wessons. I reckon there were a lot of people marrying their first cousins back in the day." I was joking, of course. The customer chuckled. I thanked him for his purchase, and said, "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
Oops! His mother was probably a Smith. Or worse, perhaps a Wesson. The more public the criticism, the greater the potential for such a faux pas.
Similarly, your subject might be close to someone who may report your criticism. It could be communicated like this: "Hey, Jim, I was talking to Mike the other day when your name came up, and..." Or, "Listen, Jim, I hear you're having some trouble with your management system."
The Preacher advised against even discreet criticism; "Revile not the king, no, not in thy thought; and revile not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the heavens shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." Ecclesiastes 10:20. History is filled with names of prime ministers, bishops, heirs, crofters and employees who learned too late.
A listener might be a potential employer who would remember the episode and be cautious about hiring you, not wanting himself to be trashed in the future. Over the years, I've interviewed many people for employment. I understand that no one would apply to work for me unless she is unhappy in her present job, quit or recently lost it, so when I ask about work history, I expect to hear some report of discontent. But when an applicant unloads on me her unrestrained denunciation of another, I step back and wonder whether she will in a few weeks or months tell the same story but fill in the blanks with my name.
"Jane, I really appreciate your application and the opportunity to meet you, but..."
Which brings me to my next reason.
Thinking that there are two sides to every story, a listener might wonder whether you are the problem.
Unbridled criticism suggests that you can not control your emotions, and if you can not control them that you are a difficult person. Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.” No one wants to work with a chronically unhappy man.
Carping infers that you can not control your tongue. On the other hand, self-control is complimentary. "Even the foolish man, when he keeps quiet, is taken to be wise: when his lips are shut he is credited with good sense." Proverbs 17:28
Uncontrolled faultfinding is uncharitable. The Westminster Confession of Faith, a document admired by Presbyterians everywhere, reminds that moral duties include "charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil." Ouch. That hurts.
Benjamin Franklin noted, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” That said, I'd better close.