Communicating bad news - some dos and don'ts

How do you communicate bad news? It's a question people on my business writing courses are increasingly asking me. In particular, they're looking for advice about how to communicate redundancies.

Here are some thoughts - what would you add to this list?

Dos when communicating bad news

1. Anticipate people's questions Put yourself in your audience's shoes. If you’d been told there were to be redundancies in your team, what questions would you want answers to? They might include: Does this affect me? When will this happen? Where can I go to for advice and support?

2. Give people a chance to air their feelings The workplace isn’t an emotion-free zone. Recognise that people will want to express their feelings about what’s happening. They may be angry and upset - so don’t try and pretend otherwise. Let them air their concerns and ask questions.

I recently came across a redundancy announcement that ended with the words we won’t take any questions now as we appreciate that you may need some time to digest this announcement.

Such a statement is designed to protect the feelings of the person breaking the bad news at the expense of those receiving it.

It’s cowardice masquerading (badly) as concern.

3. Use a variety of communication channels Sometimes, the written word isn’t enough. In 2010, workers at Essex Police were told their redundancy payments were to be halved - in an article on the intranet.

The bosses obviously didn’t have the courage to face up to staff directly - and you can imagine how their employees felt when that little bombshell quietly appeared on the homepage.

4. Share information as soon as possible Media rumour and gossip at the water cooler breed uncertainty and fear. Be sure employees hear the news from you first.

Don'ts when communicating bad news

1. Try to make out bad news is good news

Remember this scene from The Office, the BBC comedy show?

David: Well, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if you wanna stay. I know, gutting. On a more positive note, the good news is, I've been promoted. So, every cloud... You're still thinking about the bad news, aren't you?

Malcolm: There's no good news, David! There's only bad news and irrelevant news!

Few managers would be quite so crass, yet you'd be surprised at how many managers try to mitigate bad news by looking on the bright side.

Just remember: a memo about redundancies or wage cuts isn’t made more palatable by corporate chest-beating about the benefits the change will bring to the organisation. Especially if you're not going to be part of said organisation for much longer.

For real-life examples of how and how not to do it, listen to this podcast by the FT's Lucy Kellaway on Two memos divided by understanding.

2. Resort to corporate euphemisms Obscuring the issue with euphemistic language may make the person breaking the bad news feel better, but no one else.

Challenging usually means difficult, issues are more likely to be problems, and cost-efficiencies are always cuts.

Being told you're part of a downsizing (or, worse still, rightsizing) operation does not make you feel better about losing your job. Probably worse, in fact.

3. Talk like a robot operated by the Legal department Similarly, don't hide behind legalese. Phrases that sound as if they've been lifted from a contract - like prior to and effective immediately - send the message that your priority is to cover your back.

I recently came across a redundancy memo that told employees the company would offer redeployment opportunities where possible.

Only a terrified manager could disguise the fairly positive message "we're going to do everything we can to find people jobs elsewhere in the firm" with such cold, dehumanising language.

4. Do that corporate throat-clearing thing Yes, it's important to explain why, for example, redundancies are necessary.

But making your audience sit through a paragraph beginning "As you know, the current financial crisis has led to unprecedented restructuring in our industry..." is just prolonging the agony.

Don’t bury the most important message in irrelevant information or old news. Lead with the news and answer the tough questions up front. Then provide the context.

5. Pass the buck The change may be out of your hands - but don’t dwell on it. If you’re having to shut up shop because the government told you to, that doesn’t make it any easier on the affected employees.