How to Deliver Unfavourable News to Employees With Respect and Empathy?

How to Deliver Unfavourable News to Employees With Respect and Empathy?

It’s simple to deliver good news and it is easy for anybody to ace this kind of communication. But what if something unfavourable pops up? At some point, you might have to deliver bad news too.

The bad news is like the forbidden fruit for most organisations. It’s something no one wants to acknowledge or talk about. Companies rarely focus or give training on how to deliver unfavourable news in the right manner.

Unfavourable news could be anything from negative feedback on performance to turning down a request or even layoffs.

Tips to Deliver Unfavourable News Tactfully

“People will always remember how you treated them in their lowest moments”. 

One of the toughest jobs is to deliver bad news. But if you do it with dignity, the bad news can become a lot less disheartening. Guiding a team through positive times can make you feel good, but challenges like giving bad news uncover your true potential as a leader.

Here are some pointers on how to deliver unfavourable news to your employees:

1. Prepare

You can never deliver unfavourable news on the fly. The conversation can get heated and emotional by all means. You need to prepare in advance what you are going to say and anticipate the receiver’s reaction. Before meeting with the employee, research, and gather the following information:

  • Proper reasons for the decision
  • Who made the decision
  • Probable questions from the employee and your answers to them

Put yourselves in the shoes of the receiver and try to assess beforehand how they might react. This will enable you to be in a better position to stay composed and react to the receiver’s reaction.

2. Consider Timing

It might not be appropriate to blurt out bad news as soon as you have heard it. You may want to pick the most opportune moment. For instance, a depressing announcement before holidays or on Monday mornings is probably not the best time to deliver unfavourable news that may haunt the workplace for the rest of the week.

Also, it may not be appropriate to deliver unfavourable news through email, text, or phone calls. It is best to do it face-to-face and if you cannot meet in person, then apologise for indirect communication before moving on to the news.

3. Give People an Advance Warning

Providing a heads up of the general purpose of the meeting will brace the employees for something unfavourable coming up. This will help you get right to the point and also prepare the listener with a warning.

It is not necessary to go into details; simply drop an email, meeting notice, or say it in person that you would like to discuss “recent developments” or “news from the head office.” It’s natural for employees to start worrying; so, don’t keep them in suspense for long.

Give People an Advance Warning

4. Start with the Facts

Research suggests that people are more willing to accept bad news if they believe the decision-making process was fair. Explain the rationale behind the decision along with the right facts that led to the decision. Don’t try to hide the news behind ambiguous messages that can lead to more resentment.

If you don’t agree with the decision talk to your managers to understand more but don’t share your feelings with the employee. Employees are likely to be more hurt if they think that even you don’t agree with the move. You can acknowledge your disappointment to empathise but you also need to share the process, the various people involved in the decision-making, and how the outcome was reached.

5. Be Empathetic and Listen

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Compassion and respect matter! Though you might want to be direct without sugar-coating the message, you still need to keep compassion in the equation. Acknowledge and listen to the receiver’s feelings and empathise to say something like “I understand how difficult these changes will be.” Give a vent to their reactions and listen rather than shutting it down.

However, don’t open the forum for debate or leave the room for bargaining. Don’t allow the conversation to turn into a negotiation. The decision has already been made with the facts and cannot be undone. Give them a chance to voice out their reaction and share their feelings. If necessary, reinforce the finality of the decision but offer sympathy and hope in the face of loss.

6. Customise Whenever Possible

Each personality is unique, and therefore it makes sense to tailor your delivery of the news to the particular employee. Depending on the individual personality of the employee, you can try to strike a balance between empathy, clarity, choice of words, etc.

It is easy for like-minded individuals to share and receive bad news. However, the trick is to do it right even when your wavelengths may not match with the employee. In such cases, you should try and find some commonality during the conversation to make it more empathetic and respectful, instead of shying away from the bad news.

7. Focus on the Future

You are not done after delivering the news. Offer a support system and a window of hope to the employee to help them move forward. You can provide suggestions on how to improve if you gave negative feedback. Or if it is a layoff, provide counselling sessions to help them move on in their careers.

Keep the focus of the conversation on your employee or team’s feelings. The best organisations do not simply give importance to business results, but they build better relationships with employees and customers and strengthen their culture.

If it is a layoff, provide a decent severance package and stay in touch with the employee by keeping their profile in the talent pool, if a need arises in the future. If it is a low-performance rating, focus on how performance can be improved with training opportunities and whatever the employee deems fit. The last part of the discussion should focus on positive steps forward for the future.

Sharing bad news is probably the last thing that you want to deal with. No matter what the news is, if you care about the person at the receiving end, you can make the impact as less painful as possible. Unfortunately, there is no spell that makes bad news magically feel good. However, before you shoot the message, take a step to ponder, prepare, pre-empt, and put it into practice. That’s all it takes to deliver unfavourable news to your employees with respect and empathy.


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