Study: 90 percent of employees prefer bad news to secrecy

Keeping employees in the dark about your organization can hurt productivity or, worse, make them quit. If your leaders balk at transparency, consider these tips from fellow industry pros.

Think about the last time you had to deliver bad news.

Maybe your company’s profits were dipping, or fluctuations in the industry or marketplace were hampering business.

Although it’s tempting to ignore that information and pray it will go away, a new study from Geckoboard found that more than 90 percent of employees would rather hear bad news than be kept in the dark.

Sixty percent of workers say they are more productive when they know more about the business, and one in four employees have quit, or know someone who has quit, a job because a manager didn’t keep them informed about what was going on with the company.

Despite these findings, most companies don’t do a good job of keeping employees in the loop. Only 10 percent of workers say they are aware of how their company is doing in real time.

For most corporate communicators, this probably isn’t shocking.

“I didn’t find this to be a surprise at all, especially in an age of such transparency around information and data,” says Michelle Markus, director of internal communications at Point B. “Expectations are high from employees regarding both good news and bad news from their direct leaders.”

Although employees and communicators understand the importance of sharing all news—not just the good stuff—leaders sometimes have a hard time getting on board.

“There’s a level of discomfort with sharing bad news, and therefore it tends to get avoided,” Markus says.

Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology, believes many leaders think employees can’t handle bad news or won’t stay productive if they know too much.

“There’s a lack of trust in employees, and what that leads to is a lack of trust in leadership, low levels of engagement and a lot of skepticism and cynicism,” Holtz says. “Employees would rather have the bad news, so they can do something about it, than be told everything is rosy and treated like children, and then be shocked when there are budget cuts or layoffs.”

Steps you can take

How do you convince leaders that employees can take bad news like grown-ups? There are a few options.

“Leaders care a lot about their reputation and the reputation of the company,” Markus says. “Tell them that being open and willing to share all news—not just the good—will help them maintain their credibility with employees.”

Once you do that, it’s easier to start a conversation about adversity, she says: “It takes maybe one or two cycles of handling bad news in an ad hoc fashion to realize that you should be talking about it before it occurs so that you’re aligned with the leadership team and whoever the key sponsors are for communications.”

Educating leaders about the ramifications of negative employee experiences at work is also crucial, Holtz says. If workers are having bad experiences at work, they will be less inclined to refer others to the company, both as a place to work and do business with.

“Employee advocacy comes from employees who have great experiences with a company,” he says. “There needs to be some education that occurs at the leadership level about the importance of trusting your employees because of how that ends up paying the organization back.”

As with any good communication plan, you should meet your leaders where they are and move forward from there. Alison Pase, vice president of internal communications at Cengage Learning, recommends understanding leaders’ concerns for withholding bad news, then addressing those areas with metrics that help your case.

“Determine how much time is lost while employees surf for news and job boards,” she says. “It’s also useful to review attrition rates, engagement surveys and exit surveys. Set up Google Alerts for your execs, so they see what your employees are receiving.”

How do you keep employees informed at your organization? Please share your advice in the comments.

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