How to break difficult news with respect

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This post helps you prepare and conduct difficult yet respectful conversations with colleagues individually or in group settings.

No, you don’t do that. Whether you’re P&O Ferries, another corporation, organisation or owner-led business. You don’t inform employees who are losing their jobs “with immediate effect” via video message – or other digital media, for that matter.

There may be no ideal way to break difficult news to employees. But dropping them a remote message through social channels is definitely one of the worst. That’s like your spouse of happy decades telling you it’s over through a text message. However, what might be a tragic surprise in personal life amounts to a PR disaster in business; a failure to treat employees with the dignity every human being deserves.

Show up!

No one likes having to give bad news. However, there are a number of steps you can take to make the experience as positive as it can possibly be, for both sides involved. A personal conversation conducted well, paired with appropriate follow-up actions, will help recipients understand and accept the unavoidable. Many will embrace available support, start going through their personal ‘change journey’ and soon focus on planning the future rather than mourning the past.

Through years of leading communications for global enterprises as well as smaller ones, I too had the difficult job of spearheading the delivery of impactful workforce news, from major site closures to business groups being dissolved to individual terminations. However, through the gift of working with ethical business leaders, empathic human resources partners and conscientious communications professionals in my own team, I learned early on to always deliver news of personal impact in person.

Even when you can’t change the news as such, you can make a material difference by delivering it in a respectful way. Call a meeting with the colleague or team concerned; assemble the site or company if that’s the dimension. But be with them to show you care, allow them to react and raise questions, offer sound rationale and what support is available to help colleagues work through the personal consequences of change.

Preparation matters

Meticulous planning is the key to success when delivering any message, let alone bad news – no one will thank you for ‘winging’ this one. Make sure to take time to prepare and that you’re clear on the message and rationale to share, as well as the goal of each conversation. Think about how much time it may take to reach that goal, also considering a range of possible reactions and that it may take time to allow for those in an unhurried, respectful manner.

Also, make sure to know the options the person has and what next steps they can expect. When you’re clear about what you want to communicate, it significantly improves the audience’s chances of being equally clear. Set time aside to rehearse the conversation.

Put yourself in their shoes

This might be the most important meeting the person you are talking to has had in years, so put yourself in their shoes as you plan it. Seek first to understand – then to be understood. Your opportunity is to deliver the best possible experience for recipients. They may not like what you have to say, but they might appreciate the way in which you conduct the conversation.

If you lead several one-to-one conversations in quick succession, each should be exclusively about the person you are speaking to and, as such, unique. A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work. The meeting isn’t about you, or your thoughts and opinions on the messages you are about to give – it’s all about the person you are talking to. What they need are the facts, plain and simple – not your interpretation of them.

You may need to be aware and in control of your own emotions to remain as professional as you can, before, during and after the meeting. Any assumptions you may have about how this is going to turn out may be wrong. You simply don’t know, therefore, it helps to consider a broad range of possible, even extreme reactions, and how you would deal with those.

Create the right environment

Give yourself time either side of every meeting you run. Delivering impactful news shouldn’t feel like a rushed production line, for either participant. To be respectful of others’ feelings, arriving late is unacceptable. So is racing off to your next meeting or picking up that incoming phone call. Make sure you’re in the moment and sending the right signals.

Between meetings, allow time to recharge your batteries and clear your thoughts before the next task at hand. Plan ahead so that you can be courteous, professional and focused every step of the way. If that means clearing your schedule for a while, so be it.

Chose an appropriate space in which to hold the meeting, not the canteen or a public area where you can be overheard. Make sure the room is clear of clutter and distraction-free. For one-to-one meetings, you may not want the barrier of a table between you. Chairs of equal quality, comfort and ‘status’ are helpful.

Now you can invite the person you are going to talk to. Provide reasonable notice to attend yet not so long that they may become anxious. I’ve always tried to avoid weekends and holidays between invitation and actual conversation, to not have the person stress in that extra time.

Ensure people learn simultaneously

In large-group settings, having prepared and communicated strategic change to thousands of employees across regions, a principle my team always applied was to allow every colleague to learn the announcement directly from a well-prepared senior company leader, respectfully delivered – not from the media, social channels, the grapevine or passed down by peers located elsewhere who may have learned first. These synchronised live announcements were then immediately followed by opportunities to discuss, raise any questions, vent feelings and engage with support teams available on each site to work through immediate concerns and next steps.

Simultaneous conversations and support across time zones require a lot of logistical finetuning. At some sites, we added outside marquees to ensure every single colleague could engage with a business leader should they decide so. Some of the latter were inconvenienced by travel at impossible hours to get to their audiences in a timely way; many faced uncertain or angry crowds.

However, we figured just how much worse the shock might land if the unavoidable news broke at different times and various speeds, or through remote channels, and how much more uncertainty that would create for the people affected. The media and external stakeholders had to wait until, first, the internal conversations had properly started.

Set the appropriate tone

As you begin the meeting, build an appropriate level of rapport, maintain eye contact and ensure the person or people you’re talking to are as comfortable as possible.

In these situations, using humour or small talk to break the ice will backfire, so best avoid it and get started as soon as you, too, are comfortable. Don’t try to emulate an optimistic tone if that feels inadequate. In a meeting like this, it’s critical to remain authentic – people can see through an act. Be sincere and act with integrity. Be sure to adopt a business-like tone and appropriate degree of formality; even if you’ve known people for years and consider them friends, its vital to stay professional when having difficult conversations.

Get to the point

Once you’ve started the conversation, get to the point as quickly as you can. It may feel brutal to you, yet the audience will appreciate knowing the substance. Provide minimum context necessary for the content to make sense, then share the purpose of the meeting briefly and give the facts, not your opinions. Share all news all at once. Tell it straight – don’t spin – and resist the temptation to ‘soften’ the message by dressing it up or disguising its true impact. Be explicit about what you’re saying. You’re not doing anyone a favour if people leave with ambiguity about the situation.

Be prepared to accommodate all sorts of initial reactions. Following difficult announcements, I’ve seen anything from sober questions to dead silence, dismay, emotions and swearwords, heartbreaking tears, relief or even delighted laughter at the opportunity to move on.

Show that you care and stay on track

Whatever the response, listen to what this means for the person or people in front of you, and show that you care. Be comfortable with silence, be okay with people leaving the room in disappointment. Introduce a respectful pause. Make it clear that colleagues may ask questions either right away or later, once they’ve collected their thoughts. Offer support in an unobtrusive way. Allow them to leave the workplace to be with their partner and family, and be available when they’re back the next day with questions.

Throughout the conversation, keep in mind the purpose of the meeting. Stay focused on what you’re here to communicate. Don’t get side-tracked. Your preparation and planning will pay dividends now: you’re here to convey a message, not seek approval or support. Your responsibility is to explain what this means and the impact it will have, not to try to convince the person that it was a ‘good’ decision. It won’t be from their perspective – regardless of what you say. Avoid phrases like ‘I know what you must be going through’ – quite frankly, you don’t.

Handling questions

Sooner or later, you’re bound to get questions. Some may be difficult to answer at this point, others sensitive. All of them are important for the individuals concerned.

When that happens, listen carefully. Playback the question to ensure you understand it correctly. If you can answer accurately, do so. However, should you not know the answer, make a note and get it as soon as you can. Never guess at answers, despite the temptation to placate. If someone makes statements you don’t agree with, don’t be drawn into an argument. Instead, acknowledge their comment and take the time to politely and calmly correct misunderstandings.

Closing the meeting

When you end the meeting, succinctly reiterate the key points. Ask whether they understood everything and offer a final opportunity to ask questions. Make sure people know where to turn for additional support, as appropriate, and how to direct future questions to you. Ideally, schedule a firm follow-up meeting within a day or two, as additional questions are guaranteed to come up as your audience processes what they heard and discusses it with their families.

Thank them for their time and, if appropriate, acknowledge the professional manner in which the meeting took place. Resist the temptation to end on ‘small talk’ – it is potentially as harmful at this stage as it is at the beginning of the meeting. Instead, end on a positive note that enables both of you to leave the room with dignity.

Protect yourself and others

After the announcement, once the news has had time to sink in, people will often show very different reactions from those exhibited in the meeting. You might be relieved that the dreaded, long-prepared conversation is over; however, for many the change process has only just begun. You need to be prepared to deal with all reactions as calmly and professionally as you conducted the original meeting, keeping a steady, consistent, positive perspective.

When the meeting has finished, be aware of your own emotions and take the necessary steps to manage your well-being. Mindful of confidential details, have a trusted debrief with your HR partner, line manager or other suitable person who’s been aware of the situation and involved in the prep process.

If this was an individual conversation and the rest of your team has become aware, they will naturally be inquisitive and concerned about what has just happened. You’ll need to address their enquiries as empathetically as you did those of their peer moments before. Consider – again, mindful of confidentiality – whether it may be appropriate to ask for their help in supporting their colleague through the next days, and otherwise politely return their focus to delivering work priorities.

Never cheerful, but always respectful

And no, it never gets cheerful bringing bad news to anyone. There may be solid business rationale, it may be the only choice left after scrutinising lots of alternatives – it’ll still feel personal to each and every colleague in the conversation. It touches their existence, their hopes, their livelihoods, their families. Therefore, as a corporate leader, manager or employee, when we have to engage in this kind of communication we must prepare it well, show up in person and conduct ourselves with the care and tact it takes to break personal news to fellow humans.

  • Plan with the end in mind
  • Always deliver news of personal impact in person
  • Show that you care
  • Take time to prepare and rehearse
  • Be clear on the message, rationale and support activities
  • Prepare for all sorts of possible reactions
  • Deliver the best possible experience for recipients
  • Focus on the audience you are speaking to
  • Control your own emotions
  • Be in the moment and send the right signals
  • Clear your diary
  • Chose an appropriate space to hold the meeting
  • Ensure impacted people learn simultaneously
  • Set the appropriate tone for the meeting
  • Avoid humour, don’t emulate an inadequate tone
  • Be authentic, sincere and act with integrity
  • Get to the point
  • Share the facts, not your opinions, and tell it all at once
  • Don’t spin nor ‘soften’ the message
  • Stick to script and speak with ‘one voice’ across meetings
  • Listen to questions carefully
  • Never guess at answers
  • Make sure people know where to turn for support
  • Resist the temptation to end on ‘small talk’
  • Manage your own well-being

About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.