How To Communicate Bad News to Employees [Feat. Expert-Tested Tips]
Content Editor at Workvivo
4 Jul 2023
Let’s face it: communicating bad news to employees is the least fun part of your job. But no degree or course prepares you to handle it.
So, we’ve talked to a couple of experts that have already gone through this to get their best tried-and-tested insights.
The guide and checklist below will help you ensure employees fully understand the change you’re communicating and feel confident in the next steps they should take.
How you communicate bad news to your employees matters
A shocking 74% of employees say they’re not getting company news because the internal communication process is poor.
Handling any kind of updates poorly – whether they’re staff cuts, strategy changes, or new leadership directions – can negatively impact the employee experience you’re delivering, as well as your team’s productivity levels and your company’s reputation.
A proper internal communications plan, on the other hand, will help you build up transparency and trust. Employees will appreciate your honesty when sharing difficult information as they won’t have to deal with rumors or other wandering thoughts in the absence of truth.
There will be far less speculation and anxiety. Your employees will be fully informed and in control of their future. They’ll be able to make better decisions and even solve problems faster. The best part? Once you’ve given them all the facts and figures, you’ll be able to work together as a team to find a solution to the current challenges.
In time, this also contributes to a better overall communications strategy, which means everyone can rest assured they’ll be on the same page with their colleagues, leadership, and other stakeholders.
Plus, let’s be real: hearing the bad news from you first is far better than seeing it all over LinkedIn.
Why now’s the most important time to reconsider your approach
The current economic uncertainty and risks of layoffs mean that people managers can no longer postpone reviewing their approach to communicating bad news.
Employees are already anxious and fearful. Delivering difficult information with empathy, transparency, and care is essential to maintaining trust and morale.
More than ever, your team members will need context for how decisions are made and what factors are considered. They want to know that fairness and proven facts were taken into consideration before making a change.
That’s why impersonal emails or Slack updates to notify your team of a change simply won’t work. News sometimes moves faster outside of your organization, so to make sure they’re not getting the updates elsewhere (and with the wrong facts in place), communicate early and often.
Stay one step ahead of upcoming challenges by maintaining full transparency within your organization and notifying your employees whenever things aren’t going as expected.
Acknowledging failures or shortcomings will help your employees prepare for what’s ahead or jump in to help you fix the challenges, and will pave the way for a more open workplace.
The logistics to consider when communicating bad news
What should your process for communicating bad news look like? Here’s a quick four-step checklist to help you cover the most important parts.
Keeping all messaging clear and aligned
Whether you opt for a meeting [hint: this is always the best option] or another method, keep your messaging consistent and aligned. You certainly don’t want to be changing the facts or telling different employees different things. Make sure all managers remember this to avoid any misinformation or false hopes.
Tip: Tailor your message to be appropriate for specific employees based on their roles and future expectations. However, don’t be tempted into getting their hopes up if you’re not 100% sure things will go in a different direction for certain people or departments.
Sharing all updates to one accessible location
One of the biggest communication questions a lot of People Ops managers are still trying to answer is, How do we make sure everyone has seen our update?
The solution is fairly simple to implement as long as you stick to the same communications channel throughout your entire collaboration with employees. You might also develop a plan to have every person confirm they received and understood the message, which the right tool will make possible.
Your best option is to bring everyone into a social intranet you can integrate with all of the other tools you’re using. With Workvivo, employees can access your intranet with no need for an email address or corporate device, and you can request an acknowledgment or ‘read receipt’ from them. This is perfect for making sure everyone – from future hires to recently laid-off team members – gets the message.
Making sure all employees receive the same messaging, in the same way, at the same time
Consistency is absolutely critical.
And it’s even more important when working with hybrid or remote teams. A social intranet or employee experience platform will help you ensure that everyone has access to the same message, in the same method, and at the same time.
If you have to repeat or clarify the same message to individuals, stay concise and don’t be afraid to repeat the most important announcements within your message for emphasis. If there are important clarifications that need to be made, like a lot of employees having the same uncertainties, turn to your employee communication app again and share a post, video, or podcast with further clarifications for everyone to receive.
You can even consider equipping your managers with a pre-written script. Take the time to write out what they should say beforehand to make sure they don’t alternate the truth or leave anything out in case someone asks for a one-on-one chat. If you’re going in this direction, however, remind them to practice empathy and to communicate the key messages in the script compassionately.
Tip: Don’t set strong deadlines. Allow your team time to understand your message and don’t ask for an immediate response when sharing important information. Give people at least a day, then follow up to answer any questions. Keep in mind some people might be on leave so you’ll need to accommodate extra time for them too.
Providing the next steps
We’ve all read horror stories about companies letting go of their team with no aid in place. But then there are also organizations where managers actively share the profiles of people they had to lay off or build entire directories to help them get re-hired.
And it’s not just job cuts.
Imagine having a product problem but keeping the issue only at a C-level.
A healthy approach would be to update your team on the status of the product, let them know what’s going wrong, and ask for their help.
Ultimately, people shouldn’t be affected by the news. They should instead have a clear action plan as to what’s next for them:
- Will the company help them financially until they find a new role?
- Is their pay cut temporary?
- Can they do anything to help with the client shortage?
- Does losing a big client mean they’ll have to prepare for an upcoming job change?
- Does a team member leaving mean they’ll have to take over their duties or start thinking of hiring someone else?
It’s not just about what they have to think of or do. Sometimes all it takes from your end is to clearly state what you as their employer will do to help them. So, regardless of your message, always add in what actions the company is taking to either improve the situation or help employees through it.
What skills you’ll need to keep in mind when communicating bad news
When communicating bad news, you can rely solely on tools and processes. You’ll have to go beyond these and develop your own soft skills. The most important ones are:
- Clear communication
- Active listening
- Patience and calmness
Gemma Hislop, HR Manager at Skale, says that all business decisions can be communicated in a human way. The key is to be open and transparent.
“Explain the situation, allow time for them to process it, and offer ongoing support,” she shares. “Involve them as much as the situation allows, and be direct and concise in your communication. Offering a heads-up over email or Slack prior to a call can make people feel at ease, but bad news should always be delivered over a call or in person.”
While soft skills might seem difficult to learn, you can stick to a simple framework to learn and improve your soft skills.
- Start by observing others. Pay attention to how other people with strong soft skills interact and communicate. Take notes of how they reply, handle conflicts, motivate and praise others, and build rapport. You can learn a lot just by observing others but it does take time to practice it all.
- Put it all into practice. Start making small changes at a time to the interactions you have every day. For instance, if you usually just say ‘Thanks!’ when an employee helps you, try different replying methods. You could focus on being a bit more detailed about what you’re thankful for or take your social intranet and publicly praise an employee for the help they provided.
- Get feedback. Ask coworkers and supervisors for honest feedback on your soft skills. Be clear about the specific areas you want to improve, like your communication style or conflict-resolution skills, so they can bring to light strong points or potential aspects you need to improve on.
Common mistakes and how to avoid them
Unfortunately, it’s common to make mistakes when communicating bad news. That’s because if you don’t have experience or you’re dealing with an unexpected situation, it can be hard to articulate yourself with compassion.
We’ve talked to a couple of HR experts to understand just what common mistakes you should avoid and how to do so.
Darko Srebotnik, HR Specialist at Valcon, says a common mistake is ignoring the “elephant in the room”.
“If a company has a particular problem, employees are probably already aware of it on some level. Communicating it on time and clearly is the key to the company’s transparency and building trust. If you procrastinate on it and keep information vague, it only creates mistrust and confusion, which comes at a great long-term cost.”
Lauren Webb, Executive Director of Human Resources, also points out you should be careful about the way you critique poor work or mediocre reports.
“When sharing bad news with employees or giving feedback about their work performance, managers sometimes add qualifying phrases or softening language that can weaken the communication.
“They may justify this approach, arguing that it protects the employee and preserves harmony in the workplace. In reality, this message is designed to help the manager overcome their own discomfort, and creates artificial harmony that ultimately leads to an environment with low standards, poor performance, and frustration.”
If an employee turns in a mediocre report, Lauren advises using a softer tone to help minimize some initial discomfort. Filler words and overly gentle language affect the impact of the message.
“Deliver the message directly with honest feedback. Acknowledge the employee’s efforts and strengths, while also giving direct and honest feedback that focuses on the specific areas that need improvement.”
When faced with the challenging task of communicating unfortunate news to employees, Felicia Shakiba, Founder of CPO Playbook Consultancy, stresses it’s crucial to approach the situation with thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
“By employing clear and concise language, the communicator can effectively convey the negative information to the individuals under their supervision. It’s important to strike a balance between being informative and empathetic, ensuring that the employees fully comprehend the gravity of the situation while also feeling supported during the conversation.”
She also says you should choose words carefully and maintain a respectful tone.
“This can alleviate the emotional impact and encourage a receptive atmosphere for further discussion. Ultimately, the communicator’s ability to articulate difficult news with clarity and compassion reflects their intelligence and understanding of the employees’ needs.”
On the same tone note, Amanda Halle, People Leader and Founder of Mindful Growth Partners, says you should avoid being vague or indirect.
“Being clear means being kind. If you’re giving feedback to an employee, describe the situation as a camera would see it happen.”
Amanda also recommends using a feedback framework like the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI):
- Capture and clarify the situation (context)
- What was the behavior exhibited (what would a camera see)?
- What’s the impact this had (on you, the team, and the company)?
Experts also emphasize the responsibility leaders have when communicating bad news. Kitty Sanders, Human Resources Quality Assurance Specialist at Quorum, remarks that a common mistake when communicating bad news to employees is allowing leadership to speak off the cuff without strategizing beforehand.
“This can lead to cringeworthy moments that will likely become highly visible on social media. HR and leadership should work together on, at the very least, the bullet points of what will be covered in the communication and who will field questions from employees.”
Finally, Rachel Doherty, Director at Inspired Business Consultancy, says a common mistake when sharing bad news with employees is not setting up or providing a follow-on support mechanism: “Say you’re delivering bad news in person and call a meeting, but don’t offer one-to-one or group follow-on sessions after (or another suitable and relevant ongoing communication or support system). This would help employees process the information and you could maintain open communications in the workplace to prevent the ‘rumor mill’ effect.”
Another option Rachel recommends for follow-ups is to offer practical tools for employees who may need them. These include resume writing workshops or connections with local recruiters in the event of redundancies.
Next steps for your employee communication plan
Plan ahead of time by adding a company-wide procedure for sharing bad news to your employee communications plan. If you’ve got a rough list of steps and even an initial script for communicating the changes, it’ll be much easier to handle bad news under pressure.
You’ll also want to set up a social intranet platform early on. A tool like Workvivo will both help you with communicating pressing or bad news, as well as act as an ongoing, two-way employee communication channel. This lets you keep employees connected, helps amplify your company goals, and ensures you reach everyone.