How, When and Where Should you Communicate Bad News
By Robby Brumberg
Follow this guidance from savvy industry pros to be more of an empathetic helper than a heartless henchman.
You’ve suspected for months that trouble was brewing at the office.
Turns out you were right—and it’s bad. Now, guess who gets to do the honors?
Dear communicator, stop me if you’ve heard this before from bigwigs eager to pass the bad news buck:
“We’ve gotta cut costs, and layoffs are the only way. Send out an email.”
“We’re cutting some benefits, and we need to tell the staff.”
“We’re letting our remote workers go. Let them know, will ya?”
“I don’t want the staff to panic. Let’s wait until the last possible moment to inform them.”
“We’re hemorrhaging cash. How can we spin this?”
“Please inform the staff that lunch breaks are now just 30 minutes.”
Hopefully you’ve never been conscripted by some aloof or weaselly exec into an executioner’s role, but we all must occasionally bear bad news.
Here’s advice from seasoned pros on how to be more of an empathetic helper than a heartless henchman when the time comes:
How, when and where to do it
First, determine whether the announcement or edict applies to the whole staff—or just a select few. If the axe is falling on just one person, be discreet but direct. “If I have to let someone go I do it first thing in the morning on Friday, that way it gives them the entire weekend to process and digest everything,” advises Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing.
Au contraire, says Joshua Carlson, president of Treasured Spaces. He advises against the Friday layoff line: “Don’t break bad news on Friday if it’s possible. That leaves them the weekend to be upset about it — the earlier in the week, the better.”
The worst thing you can do is let bad news fester. According to Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based psychotherapist, “Bad news should be communicated immediately so folks don’t pick up pieces as ‘hearsay’ with distorted information.” The longer you wait to clarify what’s happened—and what’s going to happen moving forward—the more you’ll stress out staffers, ruin morale and diminish trust. If an employee passes away, for example, “gather your entire staff together first thing Monday morning and matter-of-factly state the tragedy. Then, allow room for questions. If necessary, bring in trained group counselors to support and treat those who need extra attention,” she says.
PR strategist Julia Angelen Joy says she’s been on both ends of the bad news equation. She offers four ways to ease pain, anxiety and confusion for everyone involved:
The best way to break bad news to employees is in person, allowing enough time for questions.
You should follow up in writing, sharing any support resources, where they can get questions answered and any details or additional thoughts.
You should follow up again simply to ask for feedback and to listen to their thoughts.
If the bad news applies to only part of the team—let’s say half the team is being laid off—bring the whole team in so the affected parties do not have to spend the next few hours and days explaining things to their peers.
Your approach or delivery may differ, but face-to-face communication is typically the best bet for sensitive announcements—which means you should thoroughly rehearse, practice and anticipate tough questions you might receive from employees. Whatever you do, don’t make staffers wade through a pompous, patronizing, jargon-soaked memo to learn their fate. “Clear and concise always wins with sharing bad news, and being as straightforward and assertive (not passive or aggressive) as possible,” as Jen Oleniczak Brown from the Engaging Educator puts it.
Ayanna Julien, managing editor of Compare Life Insurance, advises ceding some measure of control to employees. Letting someone choose the time of a meeting gives them time to prepare, she says, but communicators should determine the where. “If you’re letting an employee go, you may want to do so in the see-through conference room in the middle of the office space because it’s safe and public. You never know how someone will react to that type of news, and you want as many eyewitnesses just in case—even if HR is in attendance,” she says.
If you’re communicating with remote workers, be very judicious with word choice—as you won’t be able to use much body language or personal presence to soften the blow. Whether you break the news via video or email, err on the side of compassion. Ditch the buzzwords, and focus on people. Be a human being, with genuine emotions, and allow employees the same freedom of expression. Above all, be swift. Rip the bandage off and give people time to process what’s happened.
After you’ve done the deed, get it all in writing, suggests Steve Pritchard, HR manager of Checklate: “Make sure what was discussed is put in writing, both as proof of the discussion taking place and to make sure the employee has a complete understanding of the situation. Ensure you round off the email by letting them know you would be happy to discuss the matter further if they have any follow-up questions or continued worries or concerns.”
Over to you, communicators. How do you handle being the bearer of bad news?