Communicating bad news

By Erin Raimondo
April 16, 2020
3 min read
Communicating bad news – Erin Raimondo

Humans have many ways to talk about communicating bad news. We “hate to be the bearer of bad news,” and urge people to not “shoot the messenger.” But when it comes down to it, shouldn’t we — as professional communicators — be the best equipped to do it well?  

Truth is, even internal communications professionals with formal training in the field (as opposed to marketers, HR folk or others who had the function dropped on their desk one day) often have little preparation for that particularly fraught task. 

Perhaps we’re ahead of the game and we’ve gone through how to develop a formal crisis communications plan, but that rarely includes the nuts and bolts and emotion of the how. So, how do we go about being the best bearers of bad news? 

First and foremost: plan

  • Plan your timeline
  • Plan your messaging
  • Plan a response strategy
  • Plan for how you will communicate future developments
  • Plan how you will engage with concerns, and plan for what those concerns are likely to be.

While planning seems like a pretty basic recommendation, it’s worth emphasizing that this is one time that ad hoc communications aren’t just inadvisable, they’re a critical failure.

Thoroughly planning how you’ll share bad news prepares you from two angles. On the one side, the preparation will ensure that you’re able to be calm, clear and fully equipped with all the necessary information. Which leads to the next benefit: employee trust. If staff feel they can trust the communicator, can ask questions and will get clear answers, there’s an opportunity to minimize the negative impact or backlash. 

Keep things transparent and honest

Resist the urge to sugarcoat, downplay or fall back on corporate jargon. It can be tempting to couch things in language that softens or puts some distance between yourself and the difficult news, but it’s an instinct that you need to avoid. Employees recognize and respect transparency and sincerity. For the most part, humans are also quite good at spotting where it’s lacking. 

You also need to consider other sources where employees may be getting their information. Depending on what the bad news actually is and how long it’s been percolating, employees may already have some knowledge or familiarity with the subject matter.

They may have access to external information, either from purely external sources (media, social media, etc.) or public corporate communications (one would definitely hope that wouldn’t precede internal comms, but it’s unfortunately not rare). Knowing what information is already out there, including any misinformation you may need to counter, will help you prepare your approach. 

Offer a way forward

Encourage leadership to share as much as they’re able about how the organization will be moving ahead, even if it’s only initial next steps, the outline of a temporary framework during a period of hardship, or how employees might be supported. 

Some things will change based on the type and scale of bad news you’re delivering (no more kitchen snacks versus, no bonuses this year versus, wide-ranging layoffs), but the basic approach remains the same.  

It’s basic human nature to shy away from communicating bad news. Done in a productive way it can be quite empowering for all the parties involved. Strengthening and building your internal communications can make the whole process easier.

Here are a few internal communication best practices to help:

By Erin Raimondo

Erin was a former teammate at Intranet Connections.