Have you ever had to deliver bad news to your employees? I have, and it’s not fun. Not at all. There’s a reason why many business executives run from this task, preferring instead to delegate it to someone else if possible. 

While delegating might temporarily get you off the hook, the bottom line is that you’re the boss. You’re at the top. And that means (in the eyes of your employees) you’re responsible for whatever is happening that needs to be communicated — the merger, the layoff, the budget cuts, or the decision to close the business.

Owning or running a business has benefits and drawbacks. Adverse events occur, as do positive ones. When it’s on you to deliver news that may alter the lives of your workforce for the worse, you’d better be willing and able to do it and do it effectively. Otherwise, employee morale suffers, and mutiny floats on the horizon.

My Experience

When I had to close the mortgage bank I’d worked so hard to build, it broke my heart. My employees were like family to me, and we’d built the business from five employees to 105. I paid my people more than average, treated them well, and they performed outstandingly as a result. I invested in their education and training and supported them with good marketing campaigns. In spite of all that, we had to shut down. It was 2007. The financial market crashed, and our line of credit pulled. Suddenly, it was all over.

Letting those 105 people go was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a business owner. I hope I never have to do it again.

How to Deliver Bad News

There are ways to deliver bad news that make it, if not easy to take, at least less hard to swallow. The message comes across better if you’re the kind of leader who’s developed positive relationships with employees. If that relationship is also based on mutual trust, so much the better. When your workers know and trust you, they still may not like what you have to say. But they’ll understand the message is necessary and accept the news a little bit better.

If you’re the one who has to deliver bad news to the team, there are four things you should avoid doing. These tips come from the blog of executive leadership coach Suzi McAlpine. Her blog, The Leader’s Digest, is chock-full of information for anyone who aspires to the C-Suite.

#1. Don’t wing it. No one likes having to deliver bad news. It’s tempting to put off even thinking about it until the very last minute, but this isn’t the time to wing it. Think ahead of time about what you’ll say and how you’ll say it. Focus on the facts and the key takeaways. Try to anticipate questions, so you’re ready with answers. Your team will appreciate your effort to present the message professionally, especially if they see you’ve tried to incorporate their view of the situation.

#2. Don’t sugar-coat it. It’s common for people to want to sugar-coat a message to take the sting out of it. This is a normal reaction, but it’s not helpful to those receiving the message. Dancing around the issue or trying to downplay it makes it look like you’re hiding something. Be direct and matter-of-fact when delivering bad news. State the situation and the resolution clearly and succinctly. And always be consistent in your messaging.

#3. Don’t leave out the why. When employees get bad news, they often ask for the why. Why is this happening? Why was this decision made? Why am I losing my job? Many managers are good at stating the situation and the resolution but leave out the reasoning behind everything. Employees want the whole picture, and most of the time, they can handle it. When delivering bad news, make sure you include the why behind it. If you don’t have all the answers yet, that’s fine. Tell them that. They’ll appreciate your candidness. Just keep them updated when you get the answers.

#4. Don’t get emotional. Major changes in the workplace are emotional for everyone. Before dropping bad news on good employees, make sure you’ve had enough time to get your own emotions under control. When you deliver the news, you need to be composed and calm. You don’t want to come across as upset, angry, confused, cold, or insensitive. Don’t let body language give anything away, either. Sometimes body language communicates more loudly than the words coming from your mouth.

You Can Do This

High-stress work situations are challenging. If you have to deliver bad news, keep the above tips in mind. Perhaps consider doing a trial run with a coworker or family member to get their feedback. And remember that whatever happens, you’re still the boss. Be professional at all times. 

Delivering bad news is never fun, but you can do it in a way that makes people appreciate you. They may even be grateful for the way you handled it. And that’s the sign of a true leader.