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Better Ways to Deliver Bad News

Giving bad news to employees is never easy, and fumbling its delivery can inflame emotions and decrease company morale. In the wake of Microsoft's stumbles in announcing a mass layoff, experts chime in on ways employers can soften such situations, and – possibly -- come out looking good.

Microsoft CEO Stephen Elop really stepped in it earlier this month when he announced a mass employee layoff via a poorly worded, long-winded email.

However, according to Bill Rosenthal, CEO of New York-based Communispond, one good thing to come out of his blunder is that it provided the rest of the business community with a teachable moment. "It's tough to make hard decisions, and I don't think that what Microsoft did was a bad decision; it was the message that was bad," says Rosenthal. "It was the way he delivered it."

Think about how people are getting the news, says attorney Spencer Hamer of Michelman & Robinson in Los Angeles. "You have to assume that at least 50 percent of your employees are getting this information on their phone," he says, noting today's technology can reach people when they're anywhere doing anything. "Sending a lengthy email will be taken differently than if the message is delivered in a conference room."

"Think high tech, but also high touch," says Joseph Usher, an Atlanta-based senior partner and North America sales leader at Aon Hewitt. "Online and email communications are valid channels to utilize, but with a difficult message, think about the human touch." Usher urges HR leaders to opt for face-to-face interaction whenever possible. "This could include broad town halls at major locations or [having] a leader introduce the change via video."

Consider the content, the context and the audience, says Mike Burniston, senior partner and global leader of Mercer's New York-based communication practice. "As an employer, you know certain information before anyone else, and this might shape the basis for your message," he says, noting that it's important to explain the relevant details to the appropriate audience. "For example, one company announces significant layoffs, but they'll occur over a two-year period, and this is different than shutting down a plant in six months. Understanding how it will occur and what the reaction to the news might be becomes a driver in how to deliver the message."

Honesty is the best practice, says Rosenthal, noting, "In today's media-savvy world, if you lie, you're likely to be found out." He advises employers and managers to be prepared to answer hard questions succinctly and truthfully. "Flowery or long answers don't help. Use short answers and stick to the facts. People are generally smarter than executives give them credit for. So, if business conditions are bad, say that."

"When so many people are adversely impacted, don't turn it into good news," Burniston says, "but let the employees, managers and stakeholders know that by doing this, we will be able to …. become more efficient, more profitable or more able to achieve certain goals."

While there may be a human tendency to try to break the tension with humor, Hamer says, it's usually a bad idea.

"We've seen managers use jokes, including jokes about protected categories such as age, and it can create major issues," says Hamer, who recommends having managers work off of a well-rehearsed script. "If multiple managers are doing this, they should practice the script and not deliver it like a robot. Train them on what can and cannot be said, because you don't know how employees will take the news. Some people could have no problem while others might be devastated."

Hamer also urges companies to document everything. "I've seen employers not keep any of the information that is supporting the business out of fear of litigation. However, layoffs are a territory that can be very well-defended, and documentation makes it clear," he says. "You might need to explain the thought process on why one person was picked over another co-worker. You won't remember it later."

Creating a timeline map can help control the cadence and flow of information, says Usher. "In the first communication, commit and promise to be transparent. Then print a timeline map and put an arrow: you are here," he explains. "Then you show them on the timeline what they can expect to happen as you fulfill a series of promises. Make it personal and specific to the role. When you have a plan, it can be very simple: you communicate and follow through, because each follow-through builds credibility."

"I don't like to make announcements on a Friday," says Rosenthal, "because then they have two days to imagine all the best and worst scenarios. Instead, do it mid-week and try to make sure that all your managers will have immediate access to staff afterwards. Also, avoid making announcements on holidays."

Hewlett-Packard Co. laid off 29,000 employees in 2013, Rosenthal notes. "But you may not have known about it, because it didn't create an uproar." He points to BlackBerry, which was obviously having problems. "But rather than doing it all at once, they laid people off in dribs and drabs. Then everyone was waiting for the axe to fall."

Rosenthal notes that it's important to view the situation from the perspective of the people being affected. "If you find yourself using the words ‘I' and ‘me' a lot, then the focus is on yourself," he says.

Hamer suggests the following exercise: Send the email to yourself and imagine that you're the employee getting it. "This will force you to think about the employee's concerns; the long-term, people's families, their health insurance, etc. If you're giving a speech, have someone read it to you and put yourself in the employee's place. You'll revise that communication at least once."

Many employers are now including spouses, partners and dependents when sending out life-changing information to employees. "This can inform a conscious decision to print a mail-to-home piece," says Usher. "Many forward-looking companies do that, and it's become a trend."

And this is not the time for business as usual, Usher says.

"Human nature [eventually] becomes immune to the same channel," Usher says, adding that companies can fall short if they can't break through the white noise.

"You don't want to rely on the usual to convey something as important as a company changing direction," he says. "You can't treat it as business as usual, because it's not."

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