HR professionals are routinely called upon to deliver bad news, and are also expected to provide follow-up support. This can range from informing colleagues of a team member’s death, a restructure, redundancies and salary freezes through to misconduct issues or performance issues. But what are the wrong and right ways of communicating bad news?
Industrial-organisational psychologist, Wanda Douglas, said a critical mistake is to say “I know how you feel”.
“The truth is you can never actually truly know how someone else is feeling, even if you have had a similar experience,” she told HC. “Everyone brings their unique selves and personal knowledge, opinions and emotions to a situation, and while you can empathise to a point, it is problematic to verbalise that you know exactly where they’re at. It can also have the effect of minimising their situation, by shifting the focus to you and your own experiences.”
Douglas noted the best thing to say is to be honest and acknowledge that, in fact, you don’t know the thoughts and feelings of someone else. For example, ‘I hear you loud and clear, and although I don’t know how you feel, I can certainly appreciate what you’re saying’.
When it comes to breaking the news, Andy McCormack, national service manager of transition service provider CPI New Zealand, feels non-verbal communication needs to be carefully handled.
“Written communication can be interpreted many different ways, can be taken out of context and there is no ability to provide further explanation, answer questions or provide comfort,” he explained.
It’s also advisable to not break bad news in front of others unless the news directly impacts everyone present, McCormack said. Douglas added a lack of respect for the receiver is also a deal-breaker in the delivery of bad news.
“Springing bad news on someone without warning, with no privacy and no consideration of their reaction or associated feelings will totally undermine any possibility of the interaction proceeding in a respectful and appropriate way,” she said. “In line with this, it is important to take ownership of the decision, and not cast management in a negative light. While the HR practitioner is often only the ’messenger‘ that gets shot, to assume no responsibility or state that ’I'm here as the official person to give the official message … it’s not my fault‘ undermines the organisation and will likely create a wider problem for all parties.”
And finally, making light of the situation is not the way to go, according to McCormack. While it may be a natural response people have in stressful situations, for HR professionals it isn’t the right track to take.
Key HR takeaways
Douglas and McCormack offer the following advice on effectively communicating bad news:
Convey the news face to face
Douglas explains by taking this channel it allows for better feedback and adopting a personal approach can send a message that employee/s are valued. If it affects many employees, breaking them into smaller groups can help, as it can make them more comfortable to ask questions.
“However, be warned – using face-to-face communication for bad news can increase the chance of the interaction becoming about personalities instead of issues. If this is likely, consider whether another person is able to deliver the message alongside you – ie someone who may be better received by the individual/s concerned,” Douglas said.
“The more information you know about what is happening the easier it will be to explain what is happening and be able to answer questions,” McCormack said.
“Have contingency plans in place so you have an idea what you will do if they: break down in tears (have you got tissues?); are angry (let a colleague know what is happening so they can come in and support if required); demand more answers then you have (know who else they can talk to get those answers).”
Keep to the facts
Don’t sugar-coat the message, warned Douglas. Wrapping the news in soft language to lessen the impact may mean employees miss the full weight of the message while euphemisms and clichés may strike the wrong tone with your staff.
McCormack agreed: “Communicate the situation in a clear and concise manner. Speak slowly and clearly as people when they hear bad news only really hear a small part of what is being said. Be specific to how this news impacts the person you are talking to.
“Summarise what you have said so as to re-enforce what you have spoken about and then check with the person if they understand.”
Douglas said in a case of a single-employee situation it’s better to address it quickly to avoid it metastasising and creating a toxic work environment.
“If it's an organisation-wide announcement, such as a restructure, take charge and address the issue quickly. If you don't, the rumour mill may start churning which could spread false information and sow discord among the staff,” she added.