The need for managers to break bad news can occur without warning (a family crisis, for example). But bad news can be associated with everyday work life (such as redundancy, failure to gain a promotion, or refusal of a major project proposal). Whatever the situation may be, breaking bad news can be difficult – even distressing. Although no one likes delivering bad news, the process can be handled effectively and empathetically, leaving the recipient appreciating your help and communicating to others your managerial ability…

1. Prepare yourself.

Delivering bad news is a difficult, often unpleasant task; but it is one of your responsibilities as manager. Preparation is vital and an important part of that preparation is that your ego be removed from the process. The issue should not be what the person will think of you or how you feel about delivering the news. Your focus must be on conveying the message accurately, taking into account the recipient’s feelings.

2. Select an appropriate medium.

Although extremely personal situations – redundancy, firing, family crisis – require face-to-face communication, some bad news may best be delivered by other means, such as letter or e-mail. Cheryl Maday claims that people are more effective at conveying bad news via computer than on the phone or in person. In face-to-face situations, she says, people have a tendency ‘to tune out the worst and sugarcoat bad news,

3. Avoid delays.

Although the grapevine and rumour mill will often foreshadow some areas of bad news – retrenchment, for example – you should break such news to those concerned as soon as you have assembled all the necessary information. If the news concerns an event external to the workplace, ensure that your facts are accurate before going public with the information.

4. Plan the meeting.

If you’ve decided on a face-to-face meeting, focus first on location, timing, and support. If the location is to be your office or an interview room, ensure a non-threatening layout. Ideally, there should be no physical barriers – table, desk, workbench – between you and the recipient. Chairs should be of the same height. Notepaper, pen, water, even tissues should be available. Timing, too, is an important consideration. If the bad news concerns the person’s redundancy, Friday afternoon would not be a good time because of the lack of professional support over the weekend, leaving the person to brood about the situation. Early in the day might be a good time because it allows the recipient time to think over the situation and access available support. In addition to counselling and outplacement support (if the issue is redundancy), provide all relevant paperwork including lists of networks, entitlements, and references.

5. Consider involving one other.

Depending on the nature of the bad news, consider inviting a third person to sit in on the meeting. In the case of breaking the news of a person’s redundancy, for example, the presence of another person could be a demonstration of the immediacy of the support being provided. A third person also acts as a witness should any litigation result. Breaking some bad news can cause demonstration of emotions. A third person can provide valuable support should this occur.

6. Check for understanding.

After delivering the news clearly and in a straightforward and unambiguous manner, invite the recipient to ask any questions and generally confirm that the message is being understood. Avoid information overload. Listen, empathise, provide all necessary support. The recipient must be the focus of the discussion.

7. Accompany the person.

If the bad news concerns an event external to the organisation, offer the person access to the telephone. You might arrange a taxi and accompany the person to the cab and deliver the appropriate instructions. Perhaps ask a trusted colleague to accompany the person to his or her destination, and to report to you after returning to the workplace. If the bad news concerns a termination, accompany the person to his or her workstation or office. You, or your nominee, can then follow established procedures to ensure that issues of security and physical and intellectual property are taken care of.

8. Communicate outcomes.

Keep other employees informed about the news and the outcomes. You may decide to issue a memo, send an e-mail, or assemble the group for a brief announcement. The way you handle this situation will help to build others’ confidence in you and defuse a potentially harmful staff grapevine.

9. Stay in touch.

Demonstrate genuine concern for the recipient’s well-being by remaining in contact, a task made easier if the person remains in the organisation. In the case of a redundancy, your enquiries about the person’s well-being are likely to be appreciated.

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