Situation is as follows: I'm a developer in some small IT company in Germany - started the job about 6 months ago. Work climate is great, everyone gets along very well with each other and behaviour among colleagues is very casual.

Now I've come by some presentation my boss made for one of our English-speaking customers - while it wasn't terrible, there were some noticeable mistakes that a native speaker might take as lack of professionalism/competence.

The question is now how do I best tell him that I want to proof-read those things to make the company as a whole look better? My main problems are firstly that it's, well, not my job but that of a consultant and secondly that I'm relatively new at the company and that he's twice my age and will probably doubt that I have a better grasp on the English language than he does.

So how do I point things like these out without sounding like a smart-ass?

  • 2
    Recommended reading: meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/6629/… – Jan Doggen Dec 2 '14 at 9:19
  • "Hey, on page 27, did you really mean to say ....? Maybe it's just me, but that feels awkward/looks wrong." Reserve this for use only on the worst problems, unless and until he indicates that he wants this kind of feedback -- and do it in private (eg by e-mail), NOT in the middle of a meeting or presentation, unless this session is explicitly being used to help refine the presentation. You may want to include in the note a statement that if he'd rather not get quibbles of this sort, he can say so and you'll shut up... and if he does, do. – keshlam Dec 2 '14 at 14:07
up vote 2 down vote accepted

There are a lot of nuances to this question which may or may not have a big impact on the answer. So upfront a disclaimer: no one here knows your boss better than you do and therefore his reaction can not be accurately predicted.

Nonetheless, in general I would see this as a great opportunity to start a positive relationship with your boss. How I would approach this depends heavily on the way in which you "came by" this presentation of his.

If it is in a place you can be expected to look, (eg. email sent to numerous people, network drive for a specific project). I would probably just send an email saying "hey i took the liberty to improve xyz, hope that is ok" and just send the corrections. Your boss is a busy man, he'll appreciate someone grabbing the opportunity to support him.

If it was just a casual glance while in his office on his screen you need to be a little more tactful in the approach. Generally your motivations sound reasonable and ernest so I would wager that any logically and business minded individual will receive feedback well. Not sounding like a smartass usually comes from how you say something and not particularly what you say. So think about your delivery and how you can initiate the conversation. Giving negative feedback well (especially if it was not asked for) is an invaluable skill and you might as well start learning it today!

If you went through some unwarranted effort to get a classified document; like hacking his network account, or gaining access to his office after hours: don't do it again, and never mention it.

Hope it helps.

If you are a native English speaker or have some experience living in an English-speaking country, it may be easy for him to accept that you have a better command of English. Or you might ask him questions in a neutral way, "I thought I was fluent, but I have not seen "[some odd usage from him]" before.

But if he erroneously believes that he has a strong command of English, it would probably be better for you to say nothing. He probably won't be convinced until he hears from an educated native speaker.

If he is a native speaker, but a poor one, then he's probably beyond help.

  • Well I am neither native nor have I ever lived in an English-speaking country. I'm just..very decent at it, I suppose. - And it's not that's he's terrible at the language, it's just some mistakes really standing out to someone who doesn't make them (i.e. missing adverbialisation and things like that). – No. 7892142 Dec 2 '14 at 8:43
  • Suggest to him that you enlist the help of a native speaker. – kevin cline Dec 2 '14 at 17:05
  • "It's just some mistakes really standing out..." is awkward. "It's just that some mistakes really stand out..." is clearer. – kevin cline Dec 27 '14 at 21:06

I'm relatively new at the company

Always take this factor into consideration. Wait and see how others interact with this person. Regardless of the age/experience gap he may or may not like even constructive criticism.

See if you can get some feedback on how his presentation went. Your concerns may not make a difference in this case. The boss may indicate some short-comings and look for assistance.

Personally, I think it is a good habit to have an editor/reviewer for presentations to clients. You don't always have the time or the resources. You could offer a second set of eyes. Just because you may spot an error doesn't mean your skills are that much better. I'm sure your boss is very busy and has a lot on his plate and may not be able to put in the time and effort that you could provide.

Ask around to see if it is a common practice for people to ask for presentations to be proof-read. The word may get around that you would be a good candidate for those in English.

There was a story about 30 years ago about the CEO of a small American firm who was trying to do business in Japan. He took along an employee who was a first generation immigrant, and that employee prevented the CEO from many cultural missteps that would have doomed the CEO's attempts to do business there.

I'd take the straightforward approach and tell the boss what's problematic with the English of his presentation. Its not about you being a consultant and he being twice your age - that's irrelevant. It's about him making mistakes with potentially serious consequences and you pointing them out.

Don't force anything on him.If he doesn't accept your feedback, then drop the matter. If he does accept your feedback, then you can tell him that you are volunteering to be available to proofread if he wants it.

You English is very good and if you say that he is making mistakes, I'll take you at your word.

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