Breaking bad news

This article was first published on August 8, 2013.

 

In a perfect world, your business would grow at a steady pace, no one would ever get ill, every employee would be unconditionally loyal to your business and every single person you hire would work out.

 

Bureaucrats would be efficient and diligent people who concern themselves with preventing foreign multinationals abusing their monopolies instead of tying up small businesses with red tape.

 

Taxes would be set to a low, reasonable level and be collected with a minimum of fuss – or paperwork. Infrastructure would just work – as would Microsoft Windows. And politicians would be honest people who care genuinely about the national interest.

 

Of course, if you think the real world actually works like that, please remember to water the lollypop flowers under the rainbow at the bottom of the garden of your magical gumdrop cottage as you say “good morning” to Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

 

In the real world, life is nasty, brutish and short. Business is war. As for politicians – don’t get me started!

 

Consumer confidence has sunk to the bottom of the barrel. People will leave your company if your competitors offer them more cash. Hires won’t work out. People will need to be laid off when expansion plans don’t pan out.

 

This means, from time to time, you will have to be the bearer of bad news.

 

Especially if you’re running a start-up or small business, this means a small team of people. Morale and trust can easily be blown to kingdom come by the lies of a disgruntled former co-worker, while innuendo and gossip will quickly fill any silence you leave.

 

Breaking bad news will possibly be the worst part of your job as a boss. It’ll leave you feeling like mum and dad coming back from the vet and having to tell little Sally that Mister Fluffkins is off to a wonderful place called bunny rabbit heaven. It will bring you no joy, like Dr Yankem extracting a set of wisdom teeth. Nonetheless, it needs to be done.

 

So how should you handle it?

 

Old Taskmaster says this: Call everyone affected by the news together in the meeting room. They might be the team of the employee, or for company-wide bad news your business as a whole.

 

Be calm and in control. Use an even, serious tone. Most of all, be as honest as possible.

 

Start by putting forward your explanation for the situation as honestly as you can. If sales are down 10% and you needed to lay someone off to meet cashflow, don’t sugar-coat the fact. If in retrospect you would have handled a decision differently, say it candidly.

 

Note I said as honestly as you can – in some cases it might not be appropriate to tell the full, unvarnished truth. If so, tell as much of it as you can as diplomatically as you can.

 

For example, it might not be appropriate to say: “We decided to let John go when he strolled in to work drunk at midday. For the third time this week. And that was after we gave him written and verbal warnings for his lateness.”

 

Now, in that case you might say something like: “John is a genuinely nice guy; a close co-worker and friend to many of you. Unfortunately, he is also has some wellness issues to attend to. After consulting with him over a number of incidents, the management team came to the conclusion that his personal demons prevent him from diligently carrying out his duties…”

 

Likewise, you don’t need to describe Suzie’s stroke in graphic detail, just leave it at “some serious health issues” prevent her coming to work for the foreseeable future.

 

Remember to also reassure your staff that mass layoffs aren’t just around the corner. After all, many of them will be thinking “if they got rid of John, am I next?”

 

Once you have laid the facts of the matter out on the table, ask if anyone has any questions. Again, answer these as honestly as possible.

 

Finally, let everyone know that if they have any further questions or concerns regarding this matter not to hesitate to email you, or meet you one-on-one. Some people might not feel comfortable telling you in person.

 

Your staff still won’t feel good about the bad news or agree with your tough decision, but at least they’ll respect how you handled the matter.

 

Get it done – today!

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