HR Basics, HR Management

Handling Bad Employee News: Sensitivity and Caring Are Critical

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Breaking emotional or hard news is always tough in a business environment. In smaller companies where the relationships are more closely intertwined, it can be even more difficult.

While there is no absolute “right” way to break such news, there are methods to handle these types of hard conversations to show that management is considerate of the feelings and sensitivities of all members of the team.

First, consider the “event” and think about how it will impact your employees. Telling your team about a lost contract, or even a staffing change, will be very different than breaking the news about the death of someone close to the business.

Let’s look at each type of situation with our recommendations for managing the communications flow. In any and all situations, the key is sensitive communications and making yourself available for follow-up discussions with those who may need it.

After the more personal announcements (or in concert with those in-person communications), you can distribute an organizational announcement describing the changes, what the changes mean to the business and any other pertinent details.

1. Lost contract or other type of business downturn

We recommend strategizing with your management team members who are aware of the situation to plan for a company meeting first.

Carefully think through your talking points and consider the impact on individuals and groups. Address the overall impact of the event for the business; if appropriate, review how this may impact certain groups.

Remember to consider the WIIFM theory — employees want to know whenever there is any type of business change “what’s in it for them” — good or bad. Then, you can plan individual or small group department meetings to provide more details and plan next steps.

2. Staffing change

This depends a great deal upon the type of change that is taking place.

For reorganizations, a group announcement is appropriate (where the senior manager strategizes in advance and considers the talking points that address the WIIFM factors), with follow-up afterwards with team members to ensure that they understand the changes made, the reasons why, and that they can support the new organizational structure and team.

Some employees may see winners and losers in this transition, and your job is to present the news in such a way that it positions the reorganization as necessary for the business so everyone can win in the long run.

For situations where valued and loved co-workers are exiting the company, the communications need to be more personal.

In those cases, first ask the person or persons leaving how they would like the news announced and try to respect their wishes. Would they prefer to say their goodbyes quietly? Do they want to be a part of the announcement and talk to the team all at once?

In either case, once you have worked out the details with the departing employees, it is appropriate to bring all of the employees together (perhaps with cake and coffee) to announce the departure(s) and allow the team to say goodbye to the employees leaving (if those employees choose to be part of the process).

3. Death of a team member or someone close

Think first about those employees closest to the deceased (they may already know about the event). Break the news to them first. If they know, ask how they are doing, remind them of the resources available to them through the company Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you have one, and perhaps let them take the rest of the day off to deal with their grief (if appropriate).

If you have an EAP, contact the counselors there and prepare them for calls or have counselors on site if you think it might be necessary.

News like this is best done in one-on-one or small group meetings, not in large groups. Ask the employees closest to the deceased for their ideas as to the best way for the company to honor that person and support his/her family. To the extent you can, allow employees time off for the services honoring the deceased.

At varying levels of intensity based on the nature of the difficult event, the more that you and your managers can do to show how deeply you care, then the more loyalty and goodwill you’ll generate from the staff. This, in turn, will create more of a “we’re in this together” feeling that allows the team to move on more quickly from the bad news and get back to business.

Laura Kerekes is the Chief Knowledge Officer for ThinkHR. She applies her extensive human resources and general management experience to a broad range of services for her clients, including: strategic HR consulting, interim human resources executive assignments and compliance/OD/training. Contact her at lkerekes@thinkhr.com.