Communicating Unhappy News

As more and more companies must make the difficult decision to reduce staff and send people packing, I’ve had many leaders come to me and ask for advice on what to tell people when they ask questions. When people suspect a lay off is pending, they shift into constant anxiety.
Yet too many top leaders, for their own reasons, insist on “keeping mum” as the official management policy. And it’s the leaders who are frustrated with that policy who come to me and ask, ‘what should I do?’
I usually tell them, “you may be asking the wrong person!” I’ve gotten myself in trouble on numerous occasions for sharing information with my team that was not “supposed” to be shared. Of course, on the flip side, I’ve generally had great trusting relationships with my teams, whether I was running a 12-person financial unit or a 100-member service team. So it’s a balancing game: please the boss and support secrecy, or improve loyalty and retention of team members. It’s not been a difficult choice for me, ever… but just so you know. 🙂
By now I’m sure you’ve guessed my counsel to those managers. Here’s my philosophy: In the absence of news, people will make up their own. Do you want them to believe the rumors or the truth? I also passionately believe that people prefer to hear difficult news directly from their manager. When you are sharing the bad news as well as the good news, people trust you more and won’t be looking for hidden agendas.
Plus, I happen to subscribe to the ‘they are all adults’ story… and they are not stupid or blind, so pretending nothing is happening is simply not a smart option.
Bruce Hennes is a local Crisis Communications expert — he goes in to help companies when big things blow up.  While his work is generally around embarrassment and scandal, I love how his tips for great crisis communication work for many common issues, as well.  Bruce’s coaching around any sort of bad news is to NEVER, EVER try to keep it secret — it will only blow up on you. So his top three rules are:

  1. Tell the Truth (they are going to discover it, anyway!)
  2. Be the First (let them hear it from you, not from others)
  3. Tell it all (share what is known)*

*About #3: don’t wait till you have all the facts. Tell what you do know — and what you don’t know. And if you’re sharing opinion or conjecture, make it clear that it’s just your opinion/guess. That way if reality pans out differently, people will still trust you.
Bruce says that the more YOU talk about an issue (following the above), the faster it goes away.  But once the rumor mill (or the media) have it, they will make up anything that’s missing, and sometimes the story they create is much worse than the Truth!
Over the past month I ‘ve coached leaders at two companies thru this very process.  At one organization they had to eventually lay off 20% of their workforce, but the process was going to take two weeks to fully develop. I urged them to keep sharing everything that was firmly decided as it was decided (rather than waiting till the last minute as people were being sent home), and everyone — those laid off and those who survived — felt much better about the process. Sad? Yes. Betrayed? No.
For many who work in organizations today, the news is grim and the conversations difficult.  How can you keep from falling into depression?
Here’s how: Pay attention to how you’re carrying yourself. You and your coworkers/team may not be able to control the business, but you can always control you, how you respond, etc. You can still be an optimist. Some things are falling apart, yes, AND some things are still working. What you give the most attention to will determine your ability to function and lead through it all.
In happiness, J

2 thoughts on “Communicating Unhappy News”

  1. Sound advice (as always) Jim!
    May I offer some additional “shading” for #3?
    While telling all the truth be sure to share the “spirit” of the truth and not simply the “letter” of the truth.
    A company I worked for years ago had rumors of a buy-out swirling around for months. After one VERY credible rumor hit the office a group went to the manager. “Are we being bought out?” Manager calls the guy at the top and says, “I have a group of people in my office saying they heard X from Y source. Is it true? Are we being bought out?”
    Not only did the guy at the top take the call (which still surprises me) he took the time to answer. “The ONLY thing for sale is my Volkswagen Bug. Period.”
    Everyone left fairly reassured. This was Friday afternoon.
    Monday morning (at the start of a week of vacation) my phone rings at 8AM. It’s work. Guess what? The company has been bought out and ALL jobs will be eliminated in 60 days. I couldn’t believe it!
    The guy at the top technically told the truth–the sale had already been finalized so nothing (other than his VW Bug) WAS for sale. But the sense and feeling of betrayal was huge. And ruined his credibility to that group of people.
    Telling technical “truths” while leaving employees with a false sense of security is far from being open and honest.

  2. Lisa, you are SOOO right. Your comments speak to Happiness Principle #11, Speak the Truth, which is really about telling the whole truth. That is beyond just the concept of crisis communication — it speaks to our humanity.


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