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How to break bad news (without breaking faith)

3 min read


So much of an HR executive’s day is made up of announcing good news (“You will receive an offer letter by the end of the week.”) and really bad news (“We’ll be closing the plant by the end of the month.”).   Offer letters mark the beginning of a relationship, but bad news doesn’t have to mark the end of one. In fact, deliver bad news well and you can actually strengthen the relationship.

Here’s how:

  • Be prompt. Naturally some bad news must be kept quiet until the time is right. But don’t delay any longer than necessary.  Rumors are already flying (you can count on that), so no amount of putting off the painful will actually stifle the tongues.  What you’ll be doing is not breaking bad news; you’ll be correcting the record. So, the sooner the better.
  • Be quick about it. No long preambles, please.  No mini-MBA course transparently designed to send out the message, “It’s not our fault.”  Or worse: “It’s your fault.” Just spill it.
  • Deliver the news in the context of what it means to your people. Yes, they are eventually going to want to know whose fault it really is.  But right now what they really want to know is, “What’s this news going to do to my mortgage payment and my kids’ education?”
  • Don’t talk down to your people. Maybe it’s just me but nothing gets my back up faster than the expression, “What you need to understand is…” second only to the close cousin, “What you don’t understand is….” I’m assuming you didn’t hire children.  They haven’t regressed into children while in your employ. Don’t treat them like children now.
  • After you’ve broken the news (see point 2), go back and explain exactly how you arrived at this difficult decision. Studies have shown that the more employees understand how a decision was arrived at, the more they’ll support it — even if they don’t like it. Show that the way you arrived at this terrible news was at least consistent with your company’s values, practices and culture.  Demonstrate that there was no favoritism in the way you made your choice.  This is the time for that mini-MBA course.
  • Make sure that the seniority of the bearer of bad news is commensurate with the weight of that bad news. The worse the news, the higher up the org chart the unfortunate announcer must be.  It’s unpleasant, to be sure, but that’s one of the reasons why they’re being paid the big bucks.

Hopefully we’re coming out of the latest economic emergency. And one of the results of what we’ve just been through is a wiser employee population — people who really want to be partners with the prosperity of your enterprise.  The advantage to you is that you’ll have individuals who are more entrepreneurial in the growth and prosperity of your business.  And they no longer expect that cushy berth for life.  But in return, they deserve to be kept up to date with the developments of your operations.  The good news to you here is that you can (and should be) more forthcoming, all the while keeping those essential relationships healthy and intact.

Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys, helps companies build authentically engaging workplace cultures.  She is the author of more than 15 books, including “The Truth About Getting the Best From People.”

Image credit, contour99, via iStock