5 Tips On How to Deliver Bad News in the Workplace

October 20, 2021
5 Tips On How to Deliver Bad News in the Workplace

Delivering bad news to your team is the last thing you want to do. You may have to tell someone you work under that a mistake was made on an important project or a deadline missed. Or you may be the one who has to give a negative performance evaluation. And of course, there are the worst-case scenarios: laying off or terminating employees. Whatever the situation is, knowing how to effectively communicate bad news is a useful tool we should all have at our disposal. It can be tempting to avoid informing others of bad news, but in the long run, that lack of transparency can create distrust and even more problems. Sugarcoating bad news is even worse, according to recent research. People refer to be given negative information directly and honestly. The fact is, understanding how to communicate uncomfortable information without minimizing it or hurting someone’s feelings is essential for maintaining healthy relationships in the workplace. To help you out, we’ve picked out our top 5 tips for handling bad news at work.

1. Preparation

Having to deliver bad news in the workplace is extremely stressful — which is why it’s important to give yourself time to prepare. How we lead with bad news can often set the tone for the entire interaction. Take time to evaluate your tone and body language. Perhaps do a few deep breathing exercises to relax. If you have the time, write down a few key speaking points on what you want to say. Remember, the last thing you want to do is beat around the bush. It may be difficult, but it’s important to be straightforward with your communication. You will want to use easy-to-understand language that explains the situation in its entirety.

It’s important to give yourself time to prepare. How we lead with bad news can often set the tone for the entire interaction.

2. For individuals, give bad news in private

The only thing worse than receiving bad news is receiving it in front of an audience. Of course, if you need to you can involve another staff member, such as a human resources worker. But it’s best to keep the interaction limited to the people directly involved. This will help avoid any embarrassment for all parties. There will be times when you will need to give bad news to an entire team or office. Changes in locations, office closings, downsizing, and loss of benefits are all situations that require an internal announcement. During this time, you may want to set aside 30 minutes to explain the decision to the group, let your employees ask questions, and then open your office for individual sessions.

3. Focus on what matters

When delivering the news, give your employee or employees all the relevant details. Explain how the decision was made, who was involved, and what options are available, if any. You may also want to have an action plan ready for your employee to follow. If they didn’t get the promotion they wanted, you can offer information on how they can get ahead. For employees that are facing being laid off, you may want to set up a resume-updating program for them — to help them quickly find employment.

4. Give your employee space and listen closely

It’s understandable that someone on the receiving end of bad news would be upset. And they may decide to express that. Or they may have questions they want you to answer. You should allow them to speak their mind. You may want to ask if your employee has questions directly after telling them the bad news if only to ease the tension and move the conversation into a more productive space. In rare instances, situations may escalate. It’s important to stay calm, continue listening, and give your employee space.

5. Show empathy

Delivering bad news doesn’t mean you have to be harsh. As stated earlier, our own tones and body language can set the stage for how the interaction goes. Don’t deliver the news from a place of anger if you need to give yourself time to calm down. Also, try to put yourself in their shoes. If you were the one receiving bad news how would you feel? You can still be honest and direct while being empathetic to the feelings of others.

When to reframe bad news

For things like negative performance reviews or denied training opportunities, you can try reframing the bad news. This is because, unlike things that are out of an individual’s control — like furloughs or loss of benefits — there is usually a specific image an employee has about his or her work. Conflicting directly with an employee on their work style may cause things to escalate quickly and prevent them from finding practical solutions. For example, if you want to discuss an employee’s lack of communication, you can reframe the comment as the team wanting to hear more about their work progress, so that they can plan accordingly. In this situation, you are still addressing the issue, but instead of bad news, you are giving them a problem to solve.

More on delivering bad news

While delivering bad news can be uncomfortable, if not stressful, it is a critical component of leadership. You may not like giving bad news, and your employees may hate receiving it. But in the long run, they will respect a leader who is transparent and direct with them. It’s important to note that you don’t have to end the conversation with bad news. Thinking towards the future is important, too. Before you say anything, consider having a plan of action. Having a strategy for your employee or team to follow may not seem like much, but it can help soften the blow without minimizing your employee’s emotions. By being honest, direct, and sympathetic we can effectively communicate any problem that arises. Remembering to utilize these tools can greatly improve communication and go a long way in figuring out solutions.

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