When Workers Drop Bombshells: Handling Shocking or Horrible News

Lack of training at schools and companies leaves some managers without adequate skills

By Dana Wilkie Jul 17, 2013
When employees disclose shocking personal news—a pending divorce, a terminal illness, maybe a death in the family—no good manager would dare change the subject, discourage crying or carry on about her own experience, right?


Effective listening in the workplace is often dismissed as a “soft” skill worthy of little attention in scholarly business literature, in the business classroom or at companies, said Jan Flynn, associate professor at Georgia College and State University’s Department of Management.

“Everybody thinks they know how to listen, but it’s not a skill we really teach,” said Flynn, who conducts research on workplace listening skills and co-wrote a 2008 paper in the International Journal of Listening titled “Listening in the Business Context: Reviewing the State of Research.” When it comes to skills that employers say their managers lack, “listening skills and interpersonal skills are right at the top of the ladder.”

That’s probably why Flynn, while working as a consultant at a hospital years ago, discovered a housekeeper sobbing outside a manager’s office.

“The housekeeper’s son was in jail, and she needed money and time off,” Flynn recalled. “So I asked the manager, ‘Why is she sitting outside?’ He said, ‘Every time I try to talk to her, she starts blubbering, so I told her to sit outside and pull herself together.’ I said, ‘Did you ever think that maybe crying is OK?’ ”

Because managers are often uncomfortable with emotion, she said, “I have seen over and over a tendency to push these things off onto HR … because we don’t train managers how to deal with these things.”

“In business schools … listening is not seen as a hard skill,” Flynn said. “It’s not up there with accounting or strategy. We allude to it when we teach organizational behavior, but I don’t know that we teach it.”

Acknowledging an employee’s emotional state is the first step when a worker delivers shocking or horrible news, explained Pamela J. Birrell, a clinical psychologist and senior instructor in the University of Oregon’s psychology department. It’s important to first validate the worker’s emotion, perhaps with comments such as, “That sounds like it was frightening for you,” or “It seems you feel really sad about that,” or “That must make you very angry.”

Birrell said that in addition to dodging the emotions associated with bad news, many managers “just don’t want to talk too much about it.”

She conducted research five years ago that examined how friends disclose stressful life experiences. Researchers instructed one person to tell a close friend “something shocking or something bad they’d never told them before.”

“The revelations ranged from quite shocking—‘I was molested as a child’—to mild (‘I had a fight with a mutual friend’),” Birrell recalled. Even among friends, she said, “We found that sometimes, when someone brought up something very hard, the friend just changed the topic.”

Some managers can become “very uncomfortable and say things like, ‘Maybe you should go to the employee assistance program.’ If someone is working for you, the message they might take away is, ‘Go talk to someone else about it.’ That can be destructive to the workplace relationship.”

Among Birrell’s and Flynn’s other suggestions for handling bad news are:

-Let the worker talk—a lot. “The tendency is for the manager to lead the conversation, and one of the things people need is to just ramble,” Flynn said. “It takes time. It’s not something that’s going to be a five-minute conversation.”

-Don’t jump into problem-solving. Birrell noted that “Our tendency when people tell us something hard is to try to fix it [by saying things such as], ‘Well, how many doctors have you seen?’ or ‘Are you sure about this?’ instead of asking really open-ended questions such as, ‘Could you tell me more about that?’ ”

-While it may seem like a no-brainer, some managers need to be reminded to maintain eye contact, avoid fidgeting and not glance at cellphones. “Some managers actually tell us, ‘Well, I never have eye contact when someone talks about something like this,’ ” Birrell said. “When someone’s telling you something really difficult, it’s important to be present.”

-Don’t minimize the news. “It may sound a bit scripted when we say ‘Don’t make inappropriate facial expressions’ ” such as rolling your eyes, Birrell said. “People think, well, of course you wouldn’t; but sometimes you might—say, if the manager believes what the employee is saying isn’t as serious as the employee thinks.”

-Point out the person’s strengths without making light of the problem. Rather than saying, “You’re so strong; I’m sure you’ll get through this fine,” try, “I’m amazed at how much courage this must take.”

-Focus on the person’s experience, not your own, even if your intent is to offer advice.

-Give advice only if asked. And if asked, have resources at the ready. Whether it means time off, counseling, a hotline, an employee assistance program or other resources, “they probably wouldn’t be in your office if there wasn’t something that needed to be done,” Flynn said.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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