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Delivering bad news with empathy

Delivering bad news is one of the most uncomfortable challenges faced by leaders. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory of leadership, but there are ways to relay lousy news while remaining professional, helpful, and genuine.

Generally, layoffs are our first thought when considering tough office conversations. That should be no surprise, given the thousands of well-publicized tech layoffs over the past two years. However, not every instance of what we’d consider “bad news” leads to people losing their jobs, even if the information challenges us. Topics range from those that may completely change the scope of a person’s life to others that are simply annoying or inconvenient.

Leaders must form a plan for handling any of these potential situations:

  • Layoffs, especially if it’s a large number of people or occurs during an economic downturn
  • The death of a colleague
  • Project or department shutting down (for example, several corporate DEI initiatives in the last year)
  • Benefit cutbacks
  • Poor performance review
  • Passing on an employee for promotion

Use appropriate timing and approach with care

Some think “getting it over with” is the best action plan when tough conversations are inevitable. However, careful, considerate timing can make hearing bad news more bearable for the recipient. Consider the other person or people when deciding on an appropriate time. After all, this is your opportunity to offer support.

It’s also worth planning because breaking lousy news before all pertinent information can cause confusion and frustration. Plus, speculation and rumors are liable to spread without answers. Be honest about the information you do have, then outline how you’ll communicate important updates so people are reassured that information is forthcoming.

Bad news should be delivered face-to-face when possible, or, if not in person, as close to the person or people as possible. That might be a phone call or a virtual meeting, either one-on-one or in a small group. Avoid impersonal mass emails and public statements as the initial step.

If you must address a large group (e.g., if a department or office location is closing or the benefits program is undergoing a major change), hold an internal meeting where employees can ask questions and follow up with more thorough written communication as needed.

When delivering bad news specific to one employee, make that a private conversation. One-on-one conversations offer the other person greater privacy, but in cases where HR or other team members must be present, aim to have as few people as necessary in the meeting.

In every instance, reiterate your plans to encourage open and transparent communication. People need to know where they can direct their questions and concerns, so make it easy for them to get in touch with the right people.

Specific phrases to use

Delivering bad news from a prepared script can feel cold and impersonal at a time when empathy and understanding are so important. But while we don’t necessarily advise a scripted response, here are a couple of phrases leaders should consider using to relay bad news.

“After careful consideration, this decision was made in the best interest of the company and the workforce.” This alone won’t suffice as an explanation; continue to explain your reasoning in greater detail—outline who was included in the decision-making process and how their input impacted the decision.

“I understand this might be hard for you. Do you have any questions that I can try to answer?” Focus on empathizing with the people on the other side of the conversation instead of mentioning your feelings. Sharing information leads to better understanding, so answer what you can while being honest about what you can’t say.

How to handle public perception

Anything can end up in the news, especially if you’re leading a large company experiencing difficult times. Practice delivering bad news to a small group of people before going wide. For example, an advisory panel could serve as a sounding board before giving a public statement. Gauge their reactions, then rework your announcement to address what the smaller group brought to your attention.

Lately, one of the biggest trends when announcing layoffs is to call them anything other than what they are: a layoff. Companies are “right-sizing,” “simplifying their operations,” and, in the case of UPS, “going to fit our organization to our strategy.” Using this language is less about supporting the people being let go than it is an attempt to preserve a particular public persona.

But in reality, this isn’t a time for spin. The best way forward is to take accountability for what’s happening. If there are silver linings to be had, highlight them, but don’t overreach to soften the blow. Keep the announcement professional and factual.

If other people deliver lousy news before having essential details in place, encourage them to stay as close to a prepared statement as possible while being honest about their information. If you can’t answer a question, say so, but offer to find an answer that you can share later.

Tips for tough conversations

Hopefully, you won’t have to deliver bad news regularly. But when you do, you can be prepared with these tips.

Think backward. Imagine that you’re the one receiving the bad news. How would it affect your professional and personal life in the immediate future? Run through this hypothetical scenario for every stakeholder affected by this situation so that you can develop well-rounded talking points that address everybody’s significant concerns.

Come up with solutions (when possible). The unknown is unsettling, so pairing lousy news with a few reasonable solutions can make hearing the news more accessible. When concrete solutions aren’t possible, provide a general idea of what the next steps will be. In the case of layoffs, this could mean career counseling or job placement assistance. Offer actionable help when possible—not just words of encouragement.

Be honest and respectful. Respect that there will be a wide range of feelings and that the most respectful approach is honesty and empathy. Becoming defensive will only make the situation worse for all parties.

Written by

Megan Snyder
Megan Snyder

Senior Editor |

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