Communicating Bad News to Employees

Saying that it is difficult to deliver bad news is stating the obvious. But as professionals, at times, we are in positions where we have to not only deliver the information but own it, even though we disagree with it. 

As managers, we do not agree with some management decisions, even if we have to communicate them to others. Maybe you thought your team deserves a pay raise, or the young star performer’s request for temporary flexible timing be approved. How do you deal with this? Do you let your staff know that you do not agree with what you are communicating? Or should you let them think that you agree with the decision? 

The Professional Approach 

No matter what the situation is, at the end of the day, we are all professionals and need to behave professionally. Managers often find themselves trapped between their staff and upper management. Protecting the interests of both sides is necessary and can be a complex art to master. Here are some steps to follow in dealing with such situations

Do your Homework 

Before you start your communication, do your groundwork. Find out how the decision was made, the people involved, the rationale or policy behind it, and anything else that fits the situation. There should be no question or doubt in your mind about what you are going to communicate. If there is, get back to the relevant person and ask your questions. At times you may find that the relevant concerns didn’t reach the right person, or maybe the proper authority didn’t get to know about the issue. Know all there is to know about the situation and take measures necessary to do your best for the decision.

Communicate Directly and Clearly 

A deciding factor about how employees will take your message depends on how you deliver it. you have to ascertain that your verbal and nonverbal messages are coordinated. Body language and facial expressions are essential. These should be saying something else while your words are saying something else. Fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, and poor posture communicate dissatisfaction or unease. People pick up on these cues and react accordingly. 

Even if you are communicating something that is disappointing for the team, be confident and clear. There should be no chance for misinterpretation of both verbal and nonverbal cues. If you need to practice what you have to say, have a friend help you prep for what you need to say. 

Make sure that you are not harsh about the news. Be nice, and appreciate the efforts and the motivation, but do not be ambivalent about your message. Do not sugarcoat the bad news. It is what it is. Be focused on the reasons for the rejection or decline if you are at liberty to share. 

Run Through the Decision-Making Process

Research says that people are more open to bad news if they know that the decision-making process is fair. People usually believe in the soundness of policies and procedures and accept the decisions that result from such practices. This is known as procedural fairness. 

In such situations, sharing your personal views can be damaging, particularly if you do not agree with the outcome. As managers, most team members are desirous of support and giving them the advantage of claiming that their manager is also unhappy with the decision can damage team morale and affect workplace engagement. If you need to show your support for the team, you can always encourage them by linking the original project and how it can be used as a learning experience. 

If you disagree with the decision, share your concerns with your management but not with your team members. You can always say that while explaining the decision-making process that we can do better by avoiding this or these items to get a positive outcome.

Leave Room for Venting, not Discussion
After delivering the news and explaining the decision-making process, ask the employee or team members for their reactions. This serves a dual purpose. As a manager, you get to know their feedback and gauge their reactions. You know if the employees are angry, resentful, bitter, or surprised. However, don’t fall into the trap of making efforts to align with the team. Don’t agree or disagree with what they are saying. There is no room for debate about how good or bad the decision is. Whether you agree with it or not, you have to own the decision at that moment. 

Push for Forward-Looking Plans
After you have broken the news and heard them out, give everyone time to absorb and recover from the information. This is a classic strategy to allow everyone to settle down. Then guide them to look ahead and plan for the next step or approach to adopt. Enlist the team to start problem-solving. Include the teams’ concerns and address their issues where possible. Show your availability to support the team in the next step. 

Put Every Perspective in Context

To understand this point, assume that the proposal rejected was for hybrid working for your department. Explain that the proposal has been denied because of whatever the reasons management has used. Here you can be direct and state the precise reasons. Maybe HR declined because there are policy constraints. Maybe other departments cannot work in a hybrid model, and all departments need to put in equal work hours. Whatever the reason, explain it. 

You can also share your feedback by saying that you do not agree with their rationale. Still, as an organization, we must respect what HR says (this incorporates procedural fairness). 

After this, you can allow the team to discuss (or rant) about their feelings and once they are settling down, guide them towards the future on how to plan out work schedules to manage the workload and fulfil the requirements (if any) set out by HR, this is the froward looking phase. 

Points to Remember

Things to Do:

  • Thoroughly explore the reasons for the decision before discussing the news
  • Prepare and familiarize yourself with what and how you’re going to deliver the message.
  • Explain the grounds and the thought process behind the decision

Things to Avoid:

  • Beat about the bush, deliver the news clearly and directly
  • Let your nonverbal cues oppose your words
  • Letting people have a prolonged discussion or debate about the decision — focus on moving forward

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