Whether you're starting the conversation about layoffs, communicating a bad financial situation, or dealing with poor employee performance, being the bearer of difficult news is one of the toughest tasks a manager faces. Here's how to do it right.
Delivering bad news can be the worst part of the job for any manager. That's not because the truth, on its face, is difficult to convey. It's the anxiety of the possibility of handling it poorly—and knowing that doing so can worsen the impact on your employees, their productivity, and your whole company. Finding the best way to cushion the blow on everything from layoffs to salary freezes to personal reprimands is something that troubles even the leaders of country's top companies. No one likes having the painful conversation—but meting out the bad with the good is a part of the job as a manager.
"Those aren't easy topics to deal with. Unfortunately a lot of people don't have a very good idea of how to do it and they mess it up," says David G. Javitch, an organizational psychologist, author, leadership specialist and president of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. "Often times their intention is good. They dig a grave for themselves when they deliver bad news."
While there's no way to completely pass off a layoff announcement or similar news as anything less severe, there are ways that will treat your employees fairly and make sure they still respect your leadership. Experienced business communicators offer these tips:
Delivering Bad News to Your Employees: Don't Avoid the Negative
One of the biggest problems with delivering bad news is procrastination. Avoiding talking to your employees until the last possible minute will only exasperate their reaction, says Dana Bristol-Smith the founder of Speak for Success, a business communication consultant and the author of Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking. Some companies make the mistake of not providing feedback or coaching to their employees along the way, such that when the situation reaches a boiling point, the only option is a firing, she says.
"I think it just really comes down to people are uncomfortable with confronting any sort of negative behavior or bad situation," she says.
If a single-employee situation needs to be addressed, it's better to get it out of the way as soon as the problem arises rather than letting it metastasize, which can create a toxic work environment.
If it's a company-wide announcement—such as layoffs, mergers, or tough financial news—you should take charge and address the issue quickly. If you don't, you open the door to churning of the rumor mill, which could spread false information and sow discord among the staff.
"Try to address it while it's a smaller problem rather than let something fester for longer and longer," Brostol-Smith says.
Delivering Bad News to Your Employees: Be Clear and Direct
Brevity is often a big problem for managers who are delivering bad news to employees. Too often they overdo it with the explanations, spending a lot of energy building up to the announcement, giving advance statements hinting at the news or circling around the hard truth in the middle.
"Their audience is wondering what the hell is going to happen," Javitch says. "If you give too much information, you lose the directness of message."
Keep the message brief, direct, and don't sugar-coat it.
If you try to wrap the news in soft language that attempts to lessen the impact, your employees may not understand the full weight of the announcement, Bristol-Smith says.
Evasiveness, euphemisms and reassuring language may make you feel better, but they'll strike the wrong tone with your staff. It's not the time to test your humor skills either, says Anett Grant, president of Minneapolis-based Executive Speaking.
"I think bad news is often serious and people need respect," she says. "They have to be told in a straight-forward way."
Experts also say repeating the message several times helps it sink in. Javitch recommends framing the message by starting with a short positive statement (things that have been going well in the company that year) followed by the negative statement and then a change statement that explains what is going to be different as a result of the bad news. That way employees understand what the change—layoffs, salary freezes or the like—will allow your company to do in the future.
Delivering Bad News to Your Employees: Take Ownership of the Problem
If you're the one making the announcement—whether in a group setting or a one-on-one meeting—you need to take ownership of the decision.
"The worst is when you're just carrying the flag and you didn't have anything to do with the decision," Grant says. "If they're giving the message, they have to own it. They can't just say, 'Well, I'm here as the official person to give the official message."
To hold on to the trust of your employees, you need to have your own emotions in check. You might not be able to share the whole story about the company's decision with the staff, but you should be able to explain what caused it.
"If it's an economic issue or sales are down, tell people what the situation is so they know and they can understand it," Bristol-Smith says. "Will it prevent them from feeling terrible? No, but at least they know that it's not personal."
Delivering Bad News to Your Employees: Let Timing, and Medium, be Part of the Message
Just like getting dumped from a romantic relationship, no one wants to hear bad news from a boss via e-mail.
"That's kind of a cowardly way to do things," Bristol-Smith says. "That happens more and more these days: You don't have to look in their eyes, you don't have to hear the disappointment in their voice."
If it's a large announcement that affects many employees, breaking them into small groups can help, Javitch says. Small groups feel more connected, and allow people to feel more comfortable about asking questions.
But a large group setting has advantages too: If everyone hears the same message at once, rumors or false information are less likely to spread throughout your company.
If it's a one-on-one situation, it's best to have someone else in the room with you and the employee, such as a human resources representative.
Experts differ on what time of day or day of the week is best for delivering bad news. But most agree if it's a big company-wide announcement, you should wait until late in the day between the middle and the end of the week. But if it's a serious issue—such as an employee caught embezzling—take action at the start of the day. Other employees will note of the seriousness of the situation if you're visibly escorting someone out of the building.
For good measure, you should allow for a question-and-answer session after you announce most big news. Taking suggestions for how to improve the situation makes employees feel engaged in the process, Javitch says. You can ask: "What would you do in my shoes?"
"Let them be problem solvers," he says. "They're more likely to adhere to what the solution is."
Employees will judge you by your actions in both good times and bad. Handling the bad poorly will sabotage the future productivity.
"That's what happens after everyone else is let go: They start working on their resumes," Bristol-Smith says. "And they don't wait until the end of the day to do that."