5 Big Mistakes Managers Make When Delivering Bad News To Employees

It's your job during the coronavirus pandemic to find a less awful way to give bad news, such as layoffs, pay cuts and business struggles.
Saying, "Don't take it personally," is a mistake.
Toltemara via Getty Images
Saying, "Don't take it personally," is a mistake.

If you work long enough in your career, delivering bad news to colleagues is inevitable. But during the coronavirus pandemic — as millions of Americans lose their jobs, get furloughed, have their pay cut or worry their employer will fold — bad news is increasingly being shared in cruelly impersonal Zoom calls and jargon-filled emails from leadership.

If you are a manager tasked with sharing bad news, it can be hard to start this type of difficult conversation with colleagues. But part of your job as a team leader is to make it less awful.

“The best thing managers can do is be candid and caring in their communications,” said Randy Conley, vice president of client services and trust practice leader for The Ken Blanchard Cos. “Most employees see the writing on the wall when the organization is faced with challenges like possible layoffs, restructuring or downsizing.”

The stakes are high. You will be judged not only by the people directly affected by the bad news, but also by your colleagues, and your actions will color how they perceive you and the company going forward. Layoffs that were seen as unfair were correlated with a higher rate of employees’ quitting in the future, researchers found.

When you are the bearer of bad news, you need to make the delivery less about you and more about the people whose lives are being changed by the bad news. Here are the biggest mistakes managers make when delivering grim updates or announcing upsetting changes.

1. You Don’t Get To The Point Right Away

When you know there is difficult news to come, don’t set up the false expectation that you are there to share happy normal updates by starting the meeting with chitchat. Clarity is kindness, said Kim Scott, the author of “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity,” who has written about how professionals can be trapped by ruinous empathy and not say what needs to be said.

“Every instinct in us is to run away from strong emotions, and you’ve got to be prepared to be the one who bears witness.”

- Kim Scott

As an example of how not being upfront is a mistake, Scott shared her own past experience laying off a colleague who was a new parent. “Instead of cutting right to the point, I said, ‘How are you? How’s the baby?’ He went on this beautiful monologue,” she said. “It made the conversation much harder. I burst into tears when I said, ‘But I have terrible news to deliver.’ And it made it worse for him.“

When you are delivering bad news, you should not let your worry about how the news will be received prevent you from taking decisive action.

“You don’t want to do this a little bit at a time. You want to let the person know, and then you want to be prepared to sit with the emotions in the room,” Scott said. “This is really hard. Every instinct in us is to run away from strong emotions, and you’ve got to be prepared to be the one who bears witness.”

2. You Obscure The Bad News With Corporate Language

Managers can lean on vague corporate language to avoid getting uncomfortable with what they have to say, Conley said. This business-speak might sound like, “We need to optimize efficiencies” — which actually means, “We have to lay people off” — or, “We are forced to realign our resources” — which actually means, “We’re restructuring the organization, combining three departments into one, which results in the elimination of 20 jobs,” he said.

Instead of cloaking the news in corporate metaphors, give details about why you came to the decision if you were involved in it, said Susan Heathfield, a human resources consultant. Doing this right could sound like, “We considered these five options before we reached this conclusion. All managers were involved,” Heathfield said.

3. You Make Vague Promises Instead Of Offering Concrete, Helpful Actions

Hopeful promises can feel good to say in the moment, but they are not useful to your colleague if they are not specific or true.

Take a furlough situation as one example. Vague promises around furloughs can sound like, “Maybe in the future, we’ll be able to bring you back,” but that gives no clarity on when and how that might happen, Lara Hogan, author of “Resilient Management,” said. If you don’t know when exactly staff can return, you need to create a point in time when they will at least receive the next update, she added.

The goal of delivering hard news is not to give false hope. When the bad news is job loss, Hogan said, the bearer should have at least two specific helpful actions they can offer the recipient, such as a job referral, a resume read or a connection that they can make at a company the person is interested in working at next.

If someone asks if the company is going to have layoffs again, Scott said you cannot make promises you cannot keep.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy; we don’t know what’s going to happen with this virus,” Scott said. Instead, you should stick to sharing what you know with language like, “I am going to do everything in my power never to have to do this again. This is terrible,” she said.

4. You Don’t Deliver The Bad News Yourself, With Your Face Visible

Because of the current pandemic, it may not be possible to deliver hard news face to face. But that doesn’t mean you should do it in an email.

Avoid sending only an email announcement, Conley said. “That’s cold and impersonal,” he said. “Save the email for a documented follow-up to the Zoom meeting.”

If you are doing the meeting over video, don’t convey the bad news as a disembodied voice or with a message on a screen, either, Hogan said. Leave the camera on, and make sure your face or that of whoever is delivering the bad news is visible, she said.

You also need to make sure there is time for questions, or else “people are going to feel so unsupported,” Hogan said.

5. You Reject Emotions In Yourself And Others

Process your own complicated emotions around the bad news so that you are not paralyzed by them, and don’t unnecessarily burden the recipient with them, either.

“Some people, they can’t bear the fact that this other person is in pain, so they reject the pain: ‘Don’t take it personally.’ When you’re having these conversations, eliminate that phrase from your vocabulary,” Scott said.

Instead of telling people how to feel, sit with the emotions in the room, and give people an action plan of how you will help them move forward from the bad news. Outline what you’re going to do for them, and explain how you’re going to manage the business so it doesn’t have to happen again, Scott said.

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