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Ten tips for delivering bad news well


The current economic climate unfortunately means that there are many employers delivering bad news to their workforce, as they are forced to make job losses. Hilary Jeanes offers some top tips to handle the situation with empathy and sensitivity.

The impact of the credit crunch is forcing many organisations to reduce their workforce. Telling someone they are going to lose their job is one of the most difficult tasks a manager has to do.

Here are a few tips for conveying the redundancy message well, ensuring you cover the right ground with empathy, and dealing with the aftermath – both with the employee concerned and other members of your team:

  1. If a manager is delivering the message, ensure someone from HR is with them. This type of situation can be very emotional and it is important that the manager has someone there as a witness and also who can answer any 'technical' questions, e.g. about entitlements.
  2. Prepare carefully what you will say and how you will say it. Use a script to ensure you convey all the elements of the message that you need to. Put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving the news – how would you like this difficult message to be given? Rehearse so that you can deliver the message effectively, using the right words, tone of voice and body language.
  3. Encourage the employee to bring someone with them to the meeting. The shock of the message, even if they are expecting it, often means that that they do not hear what is said and it's beneficial to have someone they can ask about the issues covered in the meeting. It is also essential to follow up with confirmation in writing.
  4. Give the message straight. I have seen people in that situation mumble, mutter and use all sorts of euphemisms which fail to get the message across. The worst situation, recounted to me by a trade union representative, was the manager who said in the meeting: "You don't realise how awful this is for me."
  5. Be prepared for each individual to react to the news in a different way – some people will be very angry, some will burst into tears, others will say nothing. Give the person time to take on board the message you have just conveyed. Remain objective about their reaction.
  6. Ensure you agree what the company line is on the reasons why. Make sure it's clear that the reasons are business ones and avoid commenting on any personal ones if the individual asks 'why me?'. Avoid getting into an argument about the whys and wherefores.
  7. Organisations handle these situations in different ways. Some let employees go immediately, others allow employees to work out their notice – particularly challenging if you need time to transfer skills or projects from one individual to another. You need to be clear about this before you go into a redundancy meeting. Added uncertainty about this will not help you or the individual.
  8. Use your influence to encourage your organisation to offer support – an office where job applications can be made in confidence, outplacement support to look for another job, access to counselling and advice about handling finances are the primary ones to have in place. You want people to move on feeling that, despite the awful situation, it was handled as well as possible and 'casualties' were treated with dignity and respect. For many people this situation can offer a new opportunity, like the cliché 'as one door closes, another one opens'. It may be difficult for people to see this at the time but if you handle the situation well, those leaving can still be ambassadors for your organisation.
  9. Help your colleagues in any way that you can – with time off and help to make job applications, referrals to contacts. Demonstrate your empathy – it's important to be nice to people when the going is tough. And you never know when you might cross paths with people again. One colleague I worked with – let's call him Bob – had a good relationship with his manager until he was given notice of redundancy. After that meeting his manager just wanted Bob out of the organisation and it showed. The manager ignored Bob and treated him as if he was no longer wanted or needed. Having worked hard and done a good job, Bob's view of his manager changed dramatically – and he was anxious about what a reference might say – an anxiety Bob could have done without.
  10. Remember to pay attention to those who stay with the organisation too. Often colleagues can feel guilty when their job is safe whilst others lose theirs or wish that they were leaving. Keep those remaining with the organisation in the picture. Find ways to rebuild the team, with encouragement and positive feedback – you'll be pleased you did.

Finally, after the news has been delivered, carry out a debrief with a valued colleague, coach or mentor and review how you handled the situation and identify what you learned and how you could do it even better next time. Handle this situation with sensitivity and you can remain on good terms with people leaving your organisation. And you will know that, at the very least, you have done the very best that you can do in the circumstances.

Hilary Jeanes is director of PurpleLine Consulting Limited, which helps organisations realise the potential of their people. For more information, email [email protected]

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