How to Deliver Bad News to Employees

on July 18, 2013 in ABR Blog, HR and Workforce Tips


Let’s face it. Unless you’re a masochist that thrives on other’s misery, no one enjoys delivering bad news. It’s uncomfortable which makes it hard to do. But, if you’re an HR Manager or hiring manager, it comes with the job. Finding the best way to deliver bad news on everything from layoffs to salary freezes to personal reprimands is something that even leaders at top companies struggle with.

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.

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.

Be Clear and Direct

Keep the message brief, direct, and don’t sugar-coat it. Avoid lengthy explanations, giving advanced statements hinting at the news or circling around the hard truth in the middle. If you do these things, your employees are bound to wonder what is going to happen and if you give too much information, you’ll lose the directness of the message.

Experts also say repeating the message several times helps it sink in. David G. Javitch, an organizational psychologist, 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.

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.

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.”

Let Timing, and Medium, be Part of the Message

No one wants to hear bad news from a boss via e-mail. But unfortunately, that is happening more and more these days.

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.

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?”

Employees will judge you by your actions in both good times and bad. Handling the bad poorly will sabotage the future productivity.

Have a tip to share with your fellow HR professionals on how you successfully delivered bad news to an employee? Share it below.