Breaking Disappointing News to an Employee

by Paddy Barr, Managing Partner, Barr Performance Coaching and IMI associate

Delivering bad news is never easy. It is important to be empathetic and considerate towards the person receiving the bad news; above all, the individual should always be able to retain their dignity.

In the long run, the recipient of the bad news will respect honesty and direct, concise language. In the short term, however, a person may have an emotional reaction, so be prepared to allow them to react to what you’re saying.

How to Break Bad News

The steps below are not a perfect formula to breaking disappointing news, but a guide as to how to set yourself up to ensure that the bad news is not made worse by a botched delivery.

Be Respectful

Your tone and demeanour have to be courteous and focussed on the person receiving the news. It is important to not take an approach, such as being light-hearted, that could be interpreted negatively.  Remember the conversation should be about them, not you, so don’t use platitudes like “It is really difficult for me to have to tell you…….”

Be Prepared

Be thorough in your preparation; ensure that you know your facts and that you can deliver the message articulately. If necessary, practice with an appropriate third party beforehand.

Be Thoughtful

If it is likely that the individual will have an emotional response or be very disappointed, it may be appropriate to hold the meeting in a private location and at a time where the individual can leave for home immediately after the meeting, rather than having to face co-workers.

Individuals will react differently to bad news; for some the impact will be instantaneous, for others it may take longer for the true impact to resonate with them. You should plan for the individual not to be around for the rest of the day or week if the news is particularly bad. If you can grant compassionate leave, and it is appropriate to do so, it might well be worth being prepared for that; you should also be aware of the increased risk of stress-induced sick leave in some instances.

Bite the Bullet

As soon as someone knows something is coming, it is important to get to the point quickly. Don’t go into long preambles about peripheral topics or history – if someone can sense that there is bad news coming, getting distracted by side issues or misguidedly trying to ‘soften’ the conversation with lots of extraneous detail will only draw out the discomfort. No more than a brief introduction to give context should be necessary.

Be Concise and Consistent

Where the bad news is a result of your decision – such as redundancies, performance-related feedback, or passing someone over for a promotion or desirable project – you need to be able to demonstrate that you have been objective and scrupulously fair in the decision-making process. Be very clear about the reasons underpinning the decision, and use the past tense to ensure there is no ambiguity over whether or not the decision has been made. This also rules out the chance of creating false hope.

For example, saying something like:  “The decision has been made to downsize. There will be redundancies, and unfortunately you will be impacted.” is clearer and less ambiguous than: “We are in the process of making a decision about downsizing… there will most likely be redundancies, but we will know more at a later date.”  The former might feel harsher to say, but it means that the affected person will be able to immediately begin to take the appropriate actions and to deal with their feelings about the news, whereas the latter – while perhaps sounding softer – will prolong the uncertainty and attendant anxiety.

The importance of clarity cannot be overstated. People can deal with bad news clearly delivered much better than bad news that is shrouded in ambiguity. In fact, the uncertainty can be far more stressful and difficult to deal with than the actual bad news itself, so try to bring as much clarity as possible to the discussion.

Own the Decision

You are the person who is delivering the message, so don’t hide behind HR or “company policy”. You need to own and be accountable for the message – especially when the news is actually as a result of a decision you have made.

Allow Time for Questions

This meeting cannot be rushed; allow the individual time to express their views, emotions and request more information. They may need to vent, so let them talk without challenging them. Only respond if you think a key fact has been misunderstood, otherwise just let the individual express their opinion. Remember that an opinion is neither right nor wrong, and they are entitled to their views.

Summarise the Discussion

Close the discussion by summarising the key points and outlining next steps; it’s important to provide information about what will happen next, and what support will be offered to the person over time. Be very clear, and remember to stick to the facts at this stage.

In the event of an emotional reaction, remain calm and professional, listen to the individual, make a note of the comments made, but do not engage in a debate. It is never appropriate to engage in a debate with someone who is in a highly emotional state. Remember, they may not realise how the news is affecting their behaviour, so always allow time for them to digest the information before engaging further. The caveat to this is, of course, that you should never have to tolerate abusive language or behaviour – if the meeting gets out of control in this way, you should cut it short.

Tips, Tricks and Takeaways

  • Get advice: If you are involved in a redundancy or employment termination situation, always seek relevant HR and legal advice before proceeding with the meeting.
  • Don’t sugar coat the message: Sugar coating the message only makes it more difficult for the individual to digest the true significance of what is important to them and may present false hope to the individual.
  • Don’t make assumptions: Don’t assume the bad news will have the same effect on all people. For some people it might be devastating, but for others it may just be the catalyst they were looking for to do something different.
  • Don’t Personalise the Situation: Do not make statements or personalise the situation to you by using statements like “It is difficult for me to have to tell you this” or “I know how you feel”. Keep your opinions to yourself, only offer your opinion if you are asked for it – offer to support the individual over time and especially when the time is right for them, not for you.  Do try to understand what practical things you can do to help the individual.
  • Redundancy rules: In the case of redundancy it is normal to offer outplacement services or help with preparing for starting a new career external to the company.
  • Redundancy within a team: In a redundancy situation, those employees who were not made redundant may feel guilt or have a negative reaction towards the company, so you will have to work with them to ‘re-recruit’ them. The process may have been unsettling and have caused them to think about external options. They may have concluded that they want to jump ship rather than wait for a potential the next round of redundancies.

Think about the last time you were given bad news at work. What made the process easier? What made it harder to deal with? How were you told? Was there anything you would have handled differently, if you had been the one delivering the news?

Try asking people you know the same questions. What worked, and what didn’t? How would they have preferred to hear the news?