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Sloan the DEV Moderator

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How do I handle brutal feedback from colleague?

This is an anonymous post sent in by a member who does not want their name disclosed. Please be thoughtful with your responses, as these are usually tough posts to write. Email if you'd like to leave an anonymous comment or if you want to ask your own anonymous question.

My colleague leaves brutal and rude feedback when reviewing my code. Just, imho, intense and unnecessary, and definitely unprofessional. This feedback is given on a fairly recurring basis, and I don't think I can stand much more of it. How do I bring this up to them in a way that’s effective and professional, and how can I get this behavior to stop?

Top comments (42)

codenameone profile image
Shai Almog

I'm sorry you went through that. This is obviously unhelpful if it's repeated and insensitive. Usually bullying comes from a lack of confidence or real experience. One of the tricks is to find a bigger bully or bigger mentor.

Finding someone who will evaluate the things he says and communicate them in a constructive way. Then help you tare down the bully. E.g. by reviewing the bullies code and finding problems/bugs. Giving you "ammunition" to respond.

Notice that this is a very unhealthy work environment. Ideally you should start job hunting and find a place that's good for you. A mentor can help you with that as well.

gosuteacher profile image

Well, I think that's a pretty bad attitude, to take revenge and I think that this would escalate the situation. Maybe it would be better to confront the person and if he starts being rude escalate to your manager.
Another tip is that your work is not you. You should not take code reviews personally. It's about the code, your practices and knowledge will develop over time.
Good luck.

codenameone profile image
Shai Almog

I agree. It's VERY unhealthy and might leave you dissatisfied as well...

But sometimes bullies need to be torn down. Otherwise they keep coming after you and after everyone else, so it's not just about you.

It's the last resort.

jeremyf profile image
Jeremy Friesen

One thing to consider in the approach is to bring concrete examples.

Hi [code reviewer], could we talk over some of your recent pull request reviews. I want to hear more about your perspective and share my perspective as well. In particular, let's look at PR #1234.

Have them share their intention, what they are trying to convey. Then share the impact of what they wrote in that PR. It is unlikely that the impact was part of their intention; but there are assholes everywhere so don't assume well intentions.

All of the above pre-supposes that this person does not have a significant difference in "organizational power/authority." If they do, you may need an ally (or third party) to help be present.

If there are any codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies, or contributing guidelines that might help you also frame the conversation.

All of this is tough, and I was previously in a position where an office bully was flinging their actual and perceived authority around; and they did it because no one stood up to them and they kept grabbing ground. Needless to say, I left, as have so many others.

jwhenry3 profile image
Justin Henry

I can't help but stress that engineers are in demand, not places to work. This means that your efficiency, experience, and environment matter more than the company in some areas. If you cannot thrive in your work environment, it's time for a new one.

m4rcoperuano profile image
Marco Ledesma

Do you have some examples possibly? Sometimes I’ve found that the text I read from a person isn’t always the way they meant it. This isn’t a fault on anyone — we see the world as we are, after all. If the comments are calling you names, then yes, that is unprofessional and should be reported to HR. If not — if the comments just sound rude — well, that involves a one to one conversation to find out if that’s how the person intended their message to come across. Often times people are just unaware of how they come off on to others.

miketalbot profile image
Mike Talbot ⭐

Like many forms of written communication, code review comments can both be interpreted as aggressive or can actually be aggressive due to the reduction in filter that people experience when sitting behind a screen.

I can think of several things you could consider trying:

  • Ask your colleague to go online and review your code with them, tell them you see that they are concerned about your work and that you want to understand their conclusions and how they get to them. Talking personally with people will often provide a deeper understanding on both sides and will hopefully reduce the tension and aggression levels considerably, quite possibly permanently.

  • Ask your line manager or team leader to provide further guidance on how reviews should be constructed as yours are causing you undue anxiety and stress which will eventually impact your productivity. Try to get the manager to review the process with the team. If your organisation has defined "values" - try to relate one or two of these to the issue you are facing.

kevinpeckham profile image
Kevin Peckham

Try to learn from anything they said that might be useful, then ignore and forget the rest.

If they crossed a line in professionalism then you have every right to file a complaint with HR. And should — it will help you and your team and your company… although waiting for HR to effect change may take longer than is helpful.

You will not be able to change this person, so do your best to avoid them. Also start keeping a file of screenshots and / or abusive comments. It may make you a feel a little better to have the behavior documented, and it will help prevent you being gaslighted if this ever comes back around and they try to undermine your claims. But, don’t share that list with anyone but HR, your manager, or your therapist, as that could put you in violation of work policies.

Finally, your best bet may be to talk to your manager. It is their job to lookout for you and your responsibility to let them know when you need help. This is a situation that a good manager can solve. And if if your manager fails you on this then it’s time to find another job at a company that does a better job of advocating for you.

adam_cyclones profile image
Adam Crockett

Code reviews have no tone of voice which is what we need to keep telling ourselves. But if the comments are full of ideology you have to question the intent to belittle others with quotes that react is better because it's blue and you MUST use it because I like blue.

Or perhaps its...

See the problem with this question is that it's hard to know the specifics, the truth is you have 3 options, quit, threaten to quit, tell HR, tell manager, talk directly to X and tell them how Thier comments are making you feel it might help, better that being in hell

cerchie profile image
Lucia Cerchie • Edited

There is a certain way to introduce tone to your comments... I like using these when I can, they're called conventional comments, in the style of conventional commits

pandademic profile image

Thanks for the link , it's really helpful!

adam_cyclones profile image
Adam Crockett • Edited

Okay for the world of code reviews, I love this idea but I think who are challenged with... Not having a heart they might skip this memo, none the less I will keep this in mind

ca55idy profile image

I've experienced similar when I was a junior and to be honest it shaped my career because I knew I never wanted to be that dev. (Turned out the guy riding me, grinded on everyone and I even once witnessed a long term contractor square up to him and only drop his fist when our manager stepped between them as the punch was thrown)

My advice:

  • discuss this colleague's review technique with another colleague who has had their code reviewed by the person, this might sound like I'm saying just moan to an allie but that isn't the case. When I mentioned the review approach, I found it was the guy's standard tone and I then at least knew it wasn't a targeted attack.
  • is there anything constructive in the feedback? If yes then it may just be the colleague's tone. This might be worth a quick informal chat with them, maybe at the coffee machine just say "hey thanks for reviewing PR xx. I'd take the comments on board a little better if they weren't so brutal", in my experience a coffee break is when their guard will be down a little and you can potentially end up in a very constructive conversation about why it feels brutal.
  • unfortunately you are going to come across that one self entitled ass in every company so whilst moving jobs may fix the issue short term, you're likely to encounter it again further down your career line.
  • maybe bring code review styles up at your expertise committee without apportioning any form of blame to anyone if the company has one and whilst you'll find everyone's approach different you will at least find their is a sort of unwritten code of conduct with reviews. Having that CoC reminder in a 'public' forum may trigger your colleague to realise they need to change their approach
  • If it is genuinely unprofessional then hr or at the very least your manager should have knowledge of its occurance. Your manager is more likely to provide immediate action but either way you at least know someone is aware and monitoring ready to action the behaviour.
polterguy profile image
Thomas Hansen

Quit! It's a poisonous environment! Get out of there ASAP!!

chasm profile image
Charles F. Munat

When others make comments about you, they are rarely talking about you. You are not present in their tiny prison cells with mirrored walls. They are alone.

They are talking to—and about—themselves. Like a bird with a mirror, they are fighting their own reflection. And often they project their own fear and anger onto you first to create that mirror.

Take yourself out of the equation. Imagine that they are reviewing someone else, not you. Now, look at their review. When you read it, do you think, Wow, this programmer sucks? Or do you think, Wow, this code reviewer is a total asshole?

For each specific comment (and ignore any that aren't specific as they are useless), ask yourself, Is this true or not?

If it is true, then this reviewer did you a favor by providing you with the information you need to improve. Agree that you should do that differently, and then do so, without fuss. Thank them genuinely. Excellent. Win for you. You look good. Smart. Professional. Humble.

Ignore everything else. It's either irrelevant, or not about you. Don't disagree. Don't comment. If it comes up again, change the subject to what you're doing to fix the true criticisms. And how you're making sure they don't reoccur. Maintain the focus. Don't allow yourself to be dragged into a fight. These people live to fight.

So do you need to do anything at all about this jerk? Probably not. If you can overcome your own negative reactions, then you can simply continue calmly and professionally and let your reviewer hang themself. And over time, as they realize (maybe) that they are the one looking bad, perhaps they'll change their own behavior.

If you can't help yourself and simply must say something, then don't do it publicly or you'll just back them further into a corner. Instead, take them aside and tell them that you are sensitive and that their tone and approach feel pretty brutal to you. That makes it about how you feel rather than about how evil they are, and gives them room to be "generous" and take into account your "sensitivity".

Let them think that they have the power. They are rude and brutal because they are insecure and always in fight mode. Imply (don't come right out and say it) that being kinder to you would show how smart and beneficent they are. Make them see that it would be a win for them (as it will). Good luck.

The odds of you changing this person's behavior are slim, so don't get your hopes up. The issues they are wrestling with did not start with you and are unlikely to end with you. But the real damage will be done to themselves. Try empathy.

Finally, I would take an aggressive asshole any day over a passive aggressive one. With the aggressive asshole, the aggression is right out in the open for everyone to see, so it can usually be ignored.

But with a passive aggressive, things look just fine on the surface. They have structured their review such that to a casual observer it will look as if they are deeply committed to helping, and in a kind way.

But you will know instantly that in reality they are patronizing you in the most condescending way, implying that you are too stupid to understand—but don't worry everyone, they are their to help you! What a hero!

If you make the mistake of complaining loudly, then they've got you. They will point out that they never said anything mean, claim they didn't mean it the way you took it, and seize the victim spot—the moral high ground. And that leaves you—the real victim—stuck in the victimizer role. And the more you try to dig yourself out, the deeper you'll dig the hole. You, not they, will be the bad guy.

There doesn't seem to be a cure for this, so maybe euthanasia for passive aggressives? Just sayin'.

Finally, ask yourself, Is this person really being brutal, or just blunt? It is easy to read dark motives into short comments in text. Things always look worse in print. Are they still brutal when you discuss it with them in person? If not, maybe stop worrying about their tone and just consider it part of living with other humans.

jonosellier profile image

Personally I'd handle it by critiquing their comments: "Thanks for the feedback. In the future, can you try to keep the comments relevant to the changes made? I'd me more than happy to discuss your opinions on some nitpick that he was rude about but a pull request is probably not the forum for this.

You mentioned that insert weakest argument he made here. I would love to do your suggestion of poorest suggestion, however considering x is a major factor I don't see how this suggestion solves this.

Keep it professional and document his instances of being rude.

hollyw00d profile image
Matt Jennings

Yes, you probably should:

  1. Escalate this to their manager if it would be helpful. Note, only do this if their manager is not a bully.

  2. Start to look for another job if things don't improve soon.

blindfish3 profile image
Ben Calder

I think it depends what is meant by "brutal". Some people are simply too busy to beat around the bush and will leave very direct feedback that can come across as "brutal", when that really isn't the intent.

In this case I would try and get into conversation with them about some appropriate feedback they've given and discuss ways to address it. If you're able to have a friendly discussion then it's likely that there's no ill intent. That might give you an opportunity to give them feedback on their approach to code review..

If on the other hand the feedback you receive is blatantly rude and unprofessional I would tell them directly that you think this is so, and inform your team lead that you have had this conversation. If you see no sign of improvement then go back to your team lead... Code review is supposed to be an opportunity to learn and share knowledge; not to vent your frustration on others.

jarvisscript profile image
Chris Jarvis

Introduce them or the company to the Hamburger Method of putting criticism between constructive compliments.
see this quote and blog for more.

I once suggested the hamburger method to a client who quickly dismissed the technique as “candy coating.” Maybe it is, but if it gets a better result, isn’t that the whole point? Medicine manufactures candy coat medicine all the time for two reasons:1) So people will take it, and2) because it tastes like crap if they don’t.If given the choice between cherry or crap flavored medicine, which would you chose?

matthewbdaly profile image
Matthew Daly

I've had that approach advocated in the past, but not by that name. The name I've always heard for it is the "shit sandwich".

syedlink profile image

Notice that this is a very unhealthy work environment. Ideally you should start job hunting and find a place that's good for you. A mentor can help you with that as well.


syedlink profile image

One thing to consider in the approach is to bring concrete examples.

Hi [code reviewer], could we talk over some of your recent pull request reviews. I want to hear more about your perspective and share my perspective as well. In particular, let's look at PR #1234.