Softening the blow of bad news

Due to economic stress, many employers are forced to slash jobs and scale back benefits.  Delivering this bad news to workers is difficult at best.  While workers won’t be pleased with the message, they will appreciate straight talk, humane action and strong leadership.  Following are some tips from HR consultant Dennis Ackley.

The key goal is not to get the bad news out as soon as possible; it’s to implement the changes with as little disruption as possible.  Avoid communicating too soon with too little information – or waiting too long and telling employees what they’ve already heard.  At the time the announcement is made, or very shortly thereafter, employees expect answers to basic questions.  They need to know details about how the changes will affect them and their families.  This will reduce uncertainty and avoid the grapevine being the primary source of information.

Bad news needs to be delivered clearly, honestly, and straightforwardly, but with a measure of optimism.  For example, if a health care plan will require higher deductibles, remind employees that even though higher costs will be incurred, the plan itself provides excellent coverage.

When jobs are affected, focus any negativity on jobs which were no longer being supported by the economy, but be positive about the people doing them.  Communicate what the company is doing to help those people.  Also, how the news is delivered is crucial, not only to the recipient but to those who remain.  A senior member of management is the best person for the task.  Avoid impersonal email.

Lastly, the magnitude of the communication should match the magnitude of the news.  If one location is being closed, all locations need to know.  Likewise, if benefits for retirees are being changed, even active employees need to be told.  Word will spread, and management needs to avoid the appearance of trying to hide things.

From Employee Benefit News, February 2009 issue, pp. 1 and 55.