How to Do a Good Job of Delivering Bad News

I’ve only had to fire someone once. In the small mail department I supervised, Laureen (not her real name) just couldn’t keep up with the others. My manager said she had to go, and I was given the task of telling Laureen. I don’t even remember what I said. I just remember that Laureen and I both cried, and I was sick to my stomach for the rest of the day. At age 21, I did not know how to do a good job of delivering bad news!

As an employer or manager, you may find yourself delivering bad news to your employees more often than you’d like. It might be as drastic as letting someone go, as minor as changing the snacks provided in the kitchen, or as disruptive as announcing a change in the software you use.  The news of change is seldom welcome, but when you know how to do a good job of delivering bad news, it can help ease the pain for both you and your employees. Here are a few tips from the experts:

Understand how the decision was made. Since you will probably feel torn, being an advocate for both the company and the employees, Amy Gallo of Harvard Business Review recommends doing your homework to fully explore all the factors that entered into the difficult decision. Not only will your knowledge give you more confidence to talk about it, but your employees are more likely to accept the decision when you’re able to explain the rationale and procedure behind it.

Reframe the decision in a positive way. Lie to your brain, advises Will Yakowicz of, and think of it as just a normal conversation. Otherwise, you might get too nervous and put off having the talk. Be careful not to play the victim and portray negative body language, even if you disagree with the decision. As a leader, you must support the path the company has chosen to follow.

Stick with the message but don’t write a script, advise the experts. Be direct and be prepared for whatever questions and emotions may arise. Show compassion and let people vent, but don’t get distracted by appeals to change the decision. It’s fruitless to allow debate over a decision that has already been made.

Help the employee or team move forward. Taking the team’s concerns into consideration, help them to focus on the future, remembering that you need to be able to work with them and preserve the relationships–unless the decision is a termination. (Click here for how to manage an underperformer.) Even then, Gallo shares a story of a manager who gathered a list of recruitment managers and consultants to help the fired employee, his wife, and kids.

If you need to know how to do a good job of delivering bad news, realize that it takes some thought and preparation. Using these tips, you can confidently deliver difficult news, field questions, and help the team embrace the new direction in which your company has chosen to go.

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