Business isn’t all roses and sunshine, so as a business communicator, you need to know how to communicate bad news to employees. The stakes are high—a single flub can sink company morale. Worse, if internal communications slip out, they can torpedo a stock price or collapse a billion-dollar business overnight.
Case in point: Enron and the failure of the “smartest guys in the room.” Researchers later determined that management’s mistakes in sharing problems with employees played a key role in dooming the firm—sending much of its top leadership to prison in the process.
“Whether your business is undergoing a merger, dealing with a contentious acquisition or simply introducing a new way of working, you will undoubtedly have to communicate difficult messages to your people,” says Hamida Bhatia, an independent communication consultant previously at Google.
The good news? Giving negative news to employees the right way can soften the blow and put them in your corner. According to Frank X. Shaw, vice president of communications at Microsoft, the first step is to understand the problem. Early in Frank’s tenure at Microsoft, CEO Steve Ballmer called him in to discuss a negative story that had popped up.
“Steve said to me, ‘In bad companies, good news travels fast, and in good companies, bad news travels fast.’ His message was clear, and I agreed—a key part of the job is the ability to deliver bad news, of any kind, internally.”
Be clear, direct and fast
Once you understand the problem, don’t wait. Hesitation can be disastrous. “People do better with clear bad news than with confusion,” Shaw explains.
Bhatia agrees. “Lead with empathy, be human and upfront. Don’t wait to perfect the message,” she says. “Be timely and share as much detail as you can. Remember, the digital space has made it easy for people to hear difficult messages before you’ve had time to share them publicly.” Bhatia says this kind of transparency during hard times goes a long way toward building credibility.
“People do better with clear bad news than with confusion.” —Frank X. Shaw, vice president of communication at Microsoft
When Kuba Koziej decided to sell his SaaS startup, Zety, to tech company Bold, he got the news out fast in order to control the message.
“We communicated our plans to sell the company early in the process, and we kept the team in the loop at all times,” Koziej says. “If you don’t contain it, gossip may win out over facts.”
For Koziej, keeping a finger on the company’s pulse was important to stem gossip. After each all-hands meeting, he talked to individual team members and asked for their concerns and questions. “That helped me improve communication, dispel issues and address any fears our team had.” That was important, since Bold asked Koziej to stay on and lead his former business as its new vice president.
Fall back on empathy
As important as speed and clarity are, they’re not enough when relaying negative news to internal teams. As a visceral example, when former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann announced a round of layoffs, he was both quick and clear. But Neumann chased the announcement with an expensive in-house concert by a member of Run-DMC, displaying a critical lack of empathy.
“Empathy is the ability to live in the bad news and understand how others will respond to it,” Shaw says. But he cautions communication pros not to sugarcoat the message. “You have to demonstrate an ability to live with people in how the news might feel. But it can’t be faked.”
Part of that authenticity involves listening to team members’ fears and frustrations and giving them a chance to vent. “Give people clarity in an open and authentic way even when you have nothing new to share. Lead with humility,” Bhatia says. “Listen to your people as they start that journey to internalize and make sense of uncertainty or change. Above all empower those within your business who are trusted by your people by giving them the tools to deliver messages effectively.”
To be clear, that doesn’t mean debating or agreeing. An argument at this stage will only complicate communication and escalate bad feelings. Rather, use active listening techniques to echo back concerns. That way employees will feel both heard and understood.
Move forward decisively
After you’ve been quick, clear and empathetic, act.
“You must always leave people with a sense of what the next step is and when,” says Helen Bissett, managing director at H&H Agency. “Also, tell them where they can go to ask questions. The questions come later, once they start to process the news.” If you leave team members hanging, they’ll fill in the gaps themselves. “That’s how gossip or hearsay can start,” she says.
Never hide from bad news
The key takeaway? To communicate negative news internally, meet it head on, before it gets out on its own. Be clear and direct, but take time to let employees vent and internalize how they feel. Don’t debate or argue, but do focus on the future. Finally, don’t worry about what people think of you. “Accept that it’s not about being liked. It’s about being clear with those on the receiving end,” Bissett says.