• Babar Dharani for Old Mutual MindSpace

The best way to deliver bad news

Communicating bad news to employees while showing them your support may sound like a dichotomy. However, it is a vital skill that will ensure their wellbeing, and that of the business.

Bad news of any kind can diminish employee wellbeing, with repercussions on their commitment to the organisation, their work engagement, morale, performance and productivity, even staff retention. Therefore, it is important to deliver bad news with due caution and care, which is underpinned by the following four fundamentals.

Ensure procedural fairness

Managers are frequently the messengers of bad news, and not always the decision makers. If you, as the person delivering the news, disagree with the process or the decision, your team is bound to detect it, either consciously or subconsciously. The slightest hint of unfairness conveyed by you can trigger a feeling of ‘not even my boss believes this is right!’ with team members.

Such perceptions of bias can be a recipe for chaos, as well as have potential legal repercussions. Since the fairness of the decision is subliminally communicated based on your personal assessment of the decision, it is essential to iron out any disagreement about it directly with the decision makers before calling a meeting with your team.

Be transparent

Research shows that people are willing to accept bad news if they believe the decision-making process was sound. So, in addition to agreeing with the decision, it’s important for you to share elements of the decision-making process. Sharing details such as who was consulted, what other possibilities were discussed, and the rationale behind the final decision can dampen negative repercussions.

Alternatively, or in addition, having those who took the decision, such as the CEO, CFO or MD, present when the bad news is delivered, will also be a great help.

Balance preparation and authenticity

Following the right steps can help in many ways. For example, scheduling meetings a few days in advance can avoid delays in delivering the news, and having a documented protocol which emphasises confidentiality can avoid office gossip.

Being well prepared can also help to clarify the message and avoid confusion due to unclear or mixed messages. However, over-preparing as a way to control your own anxiety can sabotage the meeting. For example, rehearsing conversations can stifle sincere and honest discussion, and consciously managing your body language, such as maintaining eye contact right throughout the meeting, bears the risk of appearing insincere. Preparation, though necessary, must not compromise authenticity.

Don’t compromise employees’ dignity

A genuine concern for the wellbeing of your team is vital to help employees maintain their dignity. For example, hosting one-on-one meetings with individual employees will preserve confidentiality in the instance of recipients receiving different news.

In a crisis, bad-news decisions are brought about by environmental factors rather than employee disposition, capabilities and performance, and it’s important to emphasise this to protect the recipient from self-blame.

‘Giving bad news is a difficult task. Being empathetic without sugar-coating the bad news is a skill.’

Since bad news strips recipients of control over their own future, which causes distress, talking about the long-term future, and empowering them, can balance the power dynamics in the meeting.For example, allow airtime for venting about – but not debating – the decision, and provide options for escalating the matter or appealing the process, if any.

In the case of retrenchments, an exit interview will provide an opportunity for some control and power for the employee. Additionally, being compassionate by sincerely asking if there is anything you or the company can do to assist will be appreciated.

Giving bad news is a difficult task. Being empathetic without sugar-coating the bad news is a skill. ‘Bad-news training’ can help employers and managers with delivering bad news at the right time, accurately, compassionately and authentically, to ensure employees’ well-being and minimise the negative impact on them and the business’s performance.


Article by: Babar Dharani Dr Babar Dharani is Senior Lecturer in the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business