How To Deliver Bad News

When you must share negative news, give employees time to react and grieve.

By Christina Folz Aug 25, 2016
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Conventional wisdom tells us that the best way to deliver bad news to employees is to be objective and stay positive.

But that can destroy employees’ trust, making it difficult to work together in the future, says Andrea P. Howe, who co-wrote The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, 2011).

A better approach is to help prepare people to receive bad news. You might start the conversation with a caveat such as “This is awkward,” which serves as a warning that something is up—and that it’s not good, she says. Such a cautionary note might work before informing an employee that he’s not getting a raise, for example, or telling a senior leader that she needs to step up and take action.

It demonstrates that “you care enough to show the person something is coming,” Howe says. 

Gary S. Jones, chief human resources officer for Grizzard Communications Group in Atlanta, agrees. “Caveats can be your best friend as an HR professional,” he says.

Other warning phrases include:

• “There’s no easy way to say this …” 

• “You’re not going to like what’s coming …” 

• “I don’t know how you’re going to react to this …”

Let Them Grieve

It may seem hard to believe that staying positive, or encouraging others to do so, would be a bad idea. After all, in business and in life, people have been taught to look for the silver linings and golden opportunities that come with every challenge. 

But “the truth is, when we’re delivering bad news, someone is losing something,” Jones says. And when people experience a loss—whether it’s the loss of a job or the denial of a telecommuting request—they need to grieve, he continues. 

“We shouldn’t try to deny that grief or take it away,” he says. “Letting them grieve is a necessary step in letting them move through the grief and on to more-productive behavior.” 

Show empathy by using phrases such as “I know this is sad for you,” “Go ahead and take a moment,” and “When you’re ready, we’ll continue.”

Objectivity, too, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when communicating negative news. Employees don’t want to listen to logic the moment they learn they’ve been passed over for a promotion. “We do them a disservice by saying ‘Be objective; your turn will come soon,’ ” Jones says. 

Instead, HR professionals can offer resources to help people figure out a path forward. 

A Better Way

Think about how you would deliver the same news to a friend—with empathy, compassion and perhaps a dash of tough love if the situation calls for it—and use that as a guide for handling the conversation with an employee, Howe suggests.

To help build trust, Howe and Jones offer the following advice:

Establish credibility. When you have credibility, employees believe what you say. It’s the factor people most often rely on when trying to build trust with others. But being credible is about more than just trying to be seen as an expert. It’s about truthfulness. “Be willing to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I really screwed that up,’ ” Howe says. 

Establish reliability. Reliability is about action and whether others believe you’ll do what you say you will. To bolster it, be consistent with all stakeholders, Howe says.

Establish intimacy. This might seem like odd advice to give HR professionals, but in this context intimacy equates to safety. “To what extent are you able to build a rapport and create a sense of comfort?” Jones asks. This involves allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of others. 

Reduce self-orientation. In other words, don’t make this all about you. Delivering bad news is uncomfortable for almost everyone, so it’s natural to want to avoid it. Don’t. People often need to hear it so they can learn and grow. 

When done right, “it might occur to you in that moment that, for the person who is receiving the bad news, you have given them an incredible gift,” Jones says.  

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.

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