5 ways to deliver bad news to employees

Cut to the chase, be thorough, and avoid clichés. But that’s just the start …

Even though the economy is in recovery mode, sooner or later almost every top executive will have to deliver bad news: disappointing earnings, spending cuts, or—worst of all—layoffs.

There is no truly ‘good” way to share news like that, but here are five steps you can take to make a gloomy presentation less painful for employees and less difficult for you.

1. Get all the bad news out at once.

In a 2001 talk, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers said he wanted to avoid the mistake of “dropping one shoe, and then a second shoe, and third shoe and a fourth shoe in terms of layoffs, or in terms of the business plan.”

Few things destroy morale more than bad news that dribbles out little by little. Employees start believing the wildest rumors and lose all hope, and management loses credibility. Given the nature of social media, bad news is almost guaranteed to leak out—and spread quickly. Being honest and getting all the information out at once bolsters an executive’s credibility.

2. Don’t let employees dwell on disappointment.

Give them time to absorb the bad news, but quickly give them some ways to move on. My friend, Fletcher Dean, author of “10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech,” urges executives to include something in their speech that encourages audience action. For example, he recommends that leaders suggest ways employees could trim costs or boost efficiency, or “even suggest ways to talk with job counselors.”

3. Make it clear this is about them, not you.

First and foremost, do not tell your audience how difficult these decisions are for you. Instead, clearly acknowledge the audience’s pain, their anger at bearing the brunt of transition, the unfairness of their having to cope with a changing market, etc.

4. Focus on what the audience wants to hear, not what you want to say.

Every speaker must understand the audience if he or she wants a speech to succeed. That speaker/audience connection goes from important to essential when it comes to delivering bad news. Dean has a great suggestion: Work with a speechwriter or human resources professional who knows the audience well and advocates for them. If you heed that adviser’s suggestions, the audience will appreciate that you understand them, even if they don’t like what you’re telling them.

5. More than ever, fight the temptation to use clichés

Clichés are always bad for speeches, but they are deadly when you have to share bad news. We’ve all heard the phrases that are dragged out for solemn occasions—everything from, “When a window closes, a door opens,” to, “Things seem darkest before the dawn.” But even if you use one of those familiar sayings with the best of intentions, the message you convey is that your sentiments are canned, not authentic.

You’ll never make bad news sound good to the people who work for your organization, but with some care, you can limit the damage and even lay the groundwork for a future turnaround.

Jeff Porro’s new book, “Words that Mean Success,” provides practical advice on how leaders can use the spoken word to engage the audiences most important to their success—including funders, clients, investors, employees, the press and public. (It’s available as an e-book on Amazon and on iTunes.)

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