Bringing Bad News

Communicating Bad News is one of the hardest things for our managers. No one likes to be the messenger of Bad News, even worse if you took the decisions that created the Bad News.business team concept

First let’s look at who gets the Bad News;  is it for the whole company, for some departments, for a few individuals or just the one single employee. In most cases Bad News for one means Good News for the others or at least a neutral message for the others.

If someone gets fired for not doing their job properly, the others can be assured that the company appreciates their work and recognizes who contributes and who does not. If a part of the company needs to shut down and let people go, employees in the remaining parts of the company can be relieved that their part of the company won’t have to cover the losses of the shut down anymore. If the bad news involved the whole company and all who work in it, there can be a form of solidarity and group spirit in sharing this bad news.

In crisis situations people will react differently but one of the common reactions is to have a need for information. When no information is available  people tend to speculate and hearing someone speculate on a situation will slowly move into believing these are facts when no clear information becomes available.

Three guidelines for delivering bad news are:

  • Speed: The information needs to be made available as soon as possible.
  • Clarity: The information needs to be absolutely clear and leave no room for different interpretations.
  • Goal oriented: The goal of the information needs to be crystal clear.

The need for speed and clarity may be obvious, the need for goal orientation brings up the question what the goal of the communication is. When informing a major company of changes in the benefit plans for all, we recognized that the goal may not be as clear as one would think.

In this case the goal would seem to be; informing employees of the changes in the benefit plans and how these would affect them. Upon reflection however from the perspective of the company the goal is to maintain, profitable and safe operations. Also the goal would be to create clear understanding with the employees about what the new package of benefits contains. So instead of developing a communication package about the loss of certain benefits we created a major campaign to inform the employees about the content of the remaining benefit package with as a result a great appreciation by the employees of their benefit package.

Another example was setting the goals for communicating a shut down of part of the company. Instead of fully focusing on the consequences and timeline for employees who would be involved in the shut down, we recognized that for the company the goal was a profitable and safe continuation of production and thus retention of the remaining employee talent. So the communication was balanced with a lot of emphasis on the opportunities for the remaining parts of the company and even a retention plan for some of the key employees.

There are lots of other considerations to bear in mind when giving bad news, such as delivering the message in person, by a person with enough credibility and seniority in the company, provide written materials, follow up on loose ends etc. For more on this,  we refer to a great article by Robert Bies from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business about the ten commandments for delivering bad news.

As always, Goal Clarity is key, also when delivering bad news.

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