Some Good Advice on Delivering Bad News

By Christina Folz Jul 6, 2016
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So you've read all the business books and articles, and you believe you know the best way to deliver bad news to employees: Be objective and factual, stay positive, and bring solutions to the table.

But actually, "this is terrible advice when it comes to trust-building," said Andrea P. Howe, who spoke June 22 during a mega session at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C.

"Conventional wisdom really sucks," said Howe, who co-wrote The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, 2011).

Howe co-presented the session "How to Deliver Bad News and Build Trust at the Same Time" with Gary S. Jones, chief human resources officer for Grizzard Communications Group in Atlanta.

Words of Warning

To help people better receive bad news, Howe and Jones suggested beginning the conversation with a "caveat" such as "This is awkward," which serves as a warning that something is up—and it's not good.

You might use such a caution before informing an employee that he's not getting a raise, for example, or telling a senior leader she needs to step up and take action. "Even if a caveat is only two words—'heads up'—[it demonstrates that] you care enough to show the person something is coming," Howe said.

"Caveats can be your best friend as an HR professional," Jones agreed. Some helpful examples he and Howe shared include:

  • "There's no easy way to say this …" 
  • "You're not going to like what's coming …" 
  • "At the risk of embarrassing myself …" 
  • "I may be missing the mark …" 
  • "I don't know how you're going to react to this …"

The Problem with Conventional Wisdom

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 said. And when people experience a loss—whether it's the loss of a job or a telecommuting request—they need to grieve, he continued. "We shouldn't try to deny that grief or take it away."

One way to do that is to allow people to react. "Letting them grieve is a necessary step in letting them move through the grief and on to more-productive behavior," Jones said. He suggested 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 one is communicating bad news. No one wants 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 said.

Howe and Jones also encouraged attendees to offer resources that people can access when it's convenient for them to figure out a path forward.

How to Do It Right

Consider how you might 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 employees, Howe suggested.

Of course, maintaining trust while sharing bad news can be hard to pull off with anyone. "Trust is tricky," Howe said. "It's a word like love. It means so many things to different people." Here is advice from Howe and Jones on how to build trust:

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. "Credibility is our go-to place," Howe said. But being credible is about more than just trying to be seen as an expert. "There's a hidden dimension of credibility that most of us forget about—and that's truthfulness," she said. "Be willing to say, 'I don't know' or 'I really screwed that up.' "

Establish reliability. Reliability is about action and whether others believe you'll do what you say you will. To bolster it, "be consistent across all stakeholders," Howe said. Of course, it is easier to share bad news with some people than it is with others. Nevertheless, endeavor to be consistent, she said.

Establish intimacy. Admittedly, this is odd advice to give HR professionals, Howe joked, but in this context "intimacy equates to safety—to what extent are you able to build a rapport and create a sense of comfort?" Part of 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 said.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.

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