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Cassandra Roth July 7, 2020 7 min read

Learn How to Communicate Bad News to Your People

It’s easy to tell people good news. But sometimes you have to tell them things they don’t necessarily want to hear or believe—the bad news. When communicating bad news about employee benefits, or any HR programs, it’s important to look at the big picture and frame your messages appropriately. Providing context can determine whether your people accept or resist the change. 

A while ago, I worked with a client who was implementing a major medical plan change that affected current employees and retirees. Before the change was announced, we held focus groups to understand how people might react to this change. Out of those initial interviews, we discovered that the biggest frustration for employees was: “I don’t understand why the company is doing this to me when they’re doing so well.” 

Medical plan changes are sensitive for participants. The employees interviewed needed to know why the change was happening to them, who made this decision, and how they came to this conclusion. For my client, the medical plan change was being made so the company could afford to continue providing retiree medical coverage for current and future retirees. And, although higher costs were the immediate driver for change, those affected understood and appreciated that this change was based on a long-term plan. 

Whether it’s a small policy change or a larger downsizing effort, here’s what you should consider when communicating bad news to your people. 

Before you share anything…

Think about what’s going on in the world

Lately, we’ve been hit with big changes and stressful, painful moments in the news. Remember that the information you’re sharing with everyone comes on top of the current state of the world. There may be a local or regional crisis taking place at the same time you’re scheduled to share bad news. Because of this, it’s critical that you take care to craft messages that are both clear and include a degree of sensitivity. If the bad news you’re sharing may be particularly upsetting to people in your company, like a reduction in benefits, location closure, or widespread furlough, think about how you could accompany your announcement with mental health and well-being support before communicating the news.  

Consider coordinating with PR

Assume that any news you’re sharing internally can be shared externally, too. It takes just seconds to snap a picture of an internal announcement and share it on Twitter using #YourCompanyName. Consider how the media may pick up on this, how they’ll perceive it, and how they’ll report any change you’re making. For this reason, your internal and external communications teams should work together in crafting your messages so you control the narrative.

Get a lay of the land

In addition to understanding the external stress employees are facing, assess the current internal landscape before making any moves. What’s the general feel of your population? Are people on edge? Is your change announcement something employees expect, or will they be blindsided by what you’re sharing? The answers to questions like these will help inform how you deliver bad news. To find out how your people are feeling, consider:

  • Informal meetings, surveys, and focus groups to take the temperature of your population
  • Updates on what you’ve heard from others and what’s available to help your people and their families
  • Ongoing outreach to let everyone know you’re there to listen

If you find that your people are anxious or feeling insecure, you may need to add well-being support to your outreach efforts. With any bad news announcement, include a reminder of how to access the employee assistance program, virtual counseling, or other well-being services. 

Scrutinize the messages, and determine answers to potential questions before they arise

As people process news, they’ll go through different stages before accepting change. One of those stages involves learning and asking questions to understand how the change applies to them. By conducting an impact analysis of how this news affects different groups on an individual level, you’ll be able to craft well-thought-out FAQs as a resource to help employees manage the transition. An impact analysis can be created by developing personas of the people who’ll be affected by the change and defining the disruption they may face as a result. 

Identify stakeholders, and develop a plan

Creating a communications strategy based on how your population is feeling and what the scope of the impact is will help you better manage the change. Clearly define who’s impacted by the bad news and how you’ll reach them to ensure an organized and thoughtful approach to the difficult message you need to deliver. Although you’re communicating bad news directly to your people, there are others who will be affected by the change—their families. If the change impacts them, it’s crucial that you include family members as part of your outreach. And don’t forget to identify internal and external stakeholders, including leadership and management, who can be leveraged to share or sign off on all change announcements. 

Be empathetic in your approach 

Empathy shouldn’t be confused with dancing around the truth—in fact, it’s the opposite. When you know you’ll be communicating something difficult, empathy connects you with people and helps you understand the best way to reach them in that moment. It’s important to be sensitive to how your people feel and to ensure that those affected by the information are provided the resources and space they need to process what they’re being told. Give them permission to be unhappy with the change and acknowledge that discomfort. By showing you understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of this news, you can better help everyone manage their reaction to the change. 

Present clear, thoughtful, and organized information

Successful change communications are consistent. This consistency helps people feel that they have all the information they need to understand the change. Before you share anything with your people, make sure you’ve established key messages that will be included in all bad news communications. These key messages will address and name the change that’s happening and provide people with what they need to do to take action, if action is needed. 

When you’re ready to communicate…

Engage with people managers first

For people on the receiving end, one of the most frustrating aspects of receiving bad news is feeling like the person delivering it doesn’t have any more information than they do. To avoid this situation, make sure you have a considerate approach to breaking the news to those who will dispense it. Don’t assume managers are immune to the impact of bad news—especially when they’re a first responder for those impacted by change. Your communications should include:

  • A manager memo that provides a debrief of the bad news to be released and timing on when any announcements will be made
  • Manager talking points to help them anticipate and recognize employee needs and direct their people to the appropriate resources
  • Separate manager and employee-facing FAQs
  • A manager-specific resource that encourages them to focus on their own wellness and mental health before engaging with their people

Put leaders front and center

Bad news is serious, and it deserves to be treated as such. Your people need to know that leadership has made time to address employees and their concerns. When announcing bad news, make sure the following communications come from someone at the top:

  • A live, moderated change announcement from a trusted leader with an opportunity for Q&A 
  • A follow-up email, web page, or microsite to share after the live announcement that includes where to find help to manage health and well-being during this time
  • Consistent communications that offer assistance to those affected, especially if the bad news is due to a transition or change

Be direct and consistent

Whether it’s good news or bad, your people deserve to know what they’re dealing with. Now is not the time to shy away from reality. Bad news isn’t made better by trying to spin it. When you’ve prepared people managers and made an announcement, you’ve cracked the surface. Now, you need to continue communicating to ensure that the news is understood and your call to action going forward is clear. Emphasize your key messages in each communication so there’s no confusion about what you’re telling your people. Communications should include:

  • Postcard, email, digital or physical signage, and social media updates to remind your people when the change goes into effect and where they can find resources for help
  • Tips on how to manage the post-bad-news environment
  • Clear directions for any new policies or changes that are a reaction or result of bad news

For changes that impact family members, consider communications that will go directly to homes, like postcards, self-mailers, or digital FAQs, and resources that are available outside of any firewalls, which may mean creating a microsite for spouses and dependents.

And one final point, you don’t have to communicate bad news on your own. It helps to have some other minds in the room to help think through how change will be received and who will be affected.

Cassandra Roth

Cassandra Roth, Senior Communications Consultant, is an award-winning innovator in using augmented reality for employee engagement and in developing results-driven campaigns.