Communicating Unhappy News

As more companies must make the difficult decision to reduce staff and send people packing, I’ve had many leaders seek advice on what to tell people when they ask questions. When people suspect a layoff is pending, they shift into constant anxiety.

Too many leaders 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.

My philosophy is that in the absence of news, people will make up their own stories. Would you prefer they believe the rumors or know 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” philosophy. They are neither stupid nor blind. Pretending nothing is happening is simply not a smart option.

Bruce Hennes is a Crisis Communications expert, and I love how his tips for great crisis communication work for many common issues. Bruce’s coaching around bad news is to NEVER, EVER keep it secret. 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. If you’re sharing opinion or conjecture, make it clear that it’s just your best guess. Then, if reality pans out differently, people will still trust you.

Bruce says that the more YOU talk about an issue, the faster it goes away. But once the rumor mill (or the media) has it, they will make up anything that’s missing. Often the story they create is worse than the Truth!

I recently coached leaders through this process. At one organization they had to lay off 20% of their workforce, but the process was going to take two weeks to fully develop. I urged them to share everything that was firmly decided as it was decided (rather than waiting till the last minute), 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? 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 how you respond. You can still be an optimist. 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.



Jim Smith, PCC, is The Executive Happiness Coach®. He is an international speaker, executive and life coach, and author. He provides his clients with inspiration and practical tools to live a happier life and build more positive work cultures. He is the author of Happiness At The Speed of Life: 13 Powerful Strategies for Finding Happiness at Home and On The Job, and has touched the lives of over 10,000 people worldwide through his work on Positive Emotion and Leadership. You can connect with Jim at