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9 tips for giving employees bad news

Read time: 3 minutes

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No one likes to give bad news. The pressure is only multiplied in a business setting.

Telling employees about a misstep in a poorly thought‑out way can hurt morale, productivity and the bottom line. It can also send valuable staff heading for the exits.

Your company’s reputation or partner relationships may even be damaged if word gets out about a communication miscue.

Use occasion to build trust

But with the right approach, you may be able to use a bad news announcement as an occasion to build trust, solidify staff cohesion and emerge stronger. How you act under adversity can inspire your employees—or alienate them.

Here are nine tips for delivering bad news in a way that minimizes the fallout and moves your business forward. (This advice is for news affecting the entire company, such as layoffs, a reorganization or a problem with an acquisition. See this article for tips on dismissing an individual employee.)

1. Prepare

You wouldn’t go into a major presentation without being ready. Make sure you’re clear on all the details of your announcement and what you see as the way forward for your company. Practice your delivery, and get feedback to fine‑tune it.

2. Be transparent

Don’t sugar‑coat, hide or delay announcing bad news. Employees will see through attempts to downplay misfortune—or sandwich it between good news items. Delaying or hiding the news is even worse. The truth will probably get out anyway and undermine your credibility. Being direct and honest builds trust, keeps everyone onside and helps your team working openly together towards fixing the problem.

3. Do it in person

You should avoid telling employees about setbacks by email. If at all possible, meet them face to face. It shows you value your team and gives you a forum to dispel confusion, gauge their reaction and invite discussion. Your staff will be reassured to know the company leadership is courageous enough to face them with bad news.

4. Communicate effectively

Be sure to give enough information to explain what’s going on and future steps, without going overboard with excessive details. Be clear and calm. Inform employees before telling people outside the company. Company leaders should be consistent in their internal and external messages.

5. Take responsibility

Own up to your responsibility for any slip‑ups—but don’t dwell on blame. Instead, explain what the business will do to avoid the problem in future. Your employees will appreciate this and be more likely to take responsibility for mistakes while finding ways to improve.

6. Invite feedback

This can be a good time for everyone to reconnect, reflect and work on getting better. Invite employees to ask questions and give their input. Find a suitable process for gathering their feedback on ways to avoid future miscues and improve business processes.

7. Show sensitivity

Make it clear you care about employees’ feelings and concerns. Don’t try to minimize them or be defensive.

8. Chart the future

Reiterate your company’s vision, strategy and plan of action, along with any needed changes. This will ensure everyone is on the same page and feels confident about your leadership, the company’s future and their own.

9. Follow up

Tell employees you’ll stay in regular contact to update them on the situation and get their feedback—and then follow through.

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