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The Best Way To Deliver Bad News To Employees

How you sound is more important than what you say when delivering bad news, according to science.

The Best Way To Deliver Bad News To Employees
[Photo: CSA Images/B&W Mex Ink Collection/Getty Images]

No one likes bad news—neither the giver nor the receiver—but there is a way to make it a little easier on everyone involved. While words matter, your tone has a bigger influence on the way the information is received, according to a new study from Saarland University in Germany.

Researchers reviewed 400,000 employment tribunal cases, half of which were layoff-related, and found that employees were far more likely to react in a confrontational manner when managers used an aggressive tone instead of taking time to explain the situation and its underlying causes.

To explore their findings, psychologists from the school conducted role-playing experiments. One group received training in how to communicate using language that focused on fairness and facts about why the termination took place, while the second group received no training. Researchers discovered that employees were more accepting of the news delivered by managers who had received training.

The Fairness Factor

In a second study, researchers measured the importance of facts versus fairness in delivering bad news. Members of one group received training in both factual correctness and fairness, while a second group was trained only to be factually correct.

Employees whose supervisors were only trained to correctly convey facts when delivering bad news were just as dissatisfied as those whose managers had received no training at all. "We found that it is actually fairness that is critical to how the layoff interview is judged," writes lead author Manuela Richter.

Fairness includes transparency and respect, according to industrial and organizational psychology professor Cornelius König, who led the experiments. For example, managers can explain to employees that the loss of their job was due to economic difficulties and not performance, and that the company was forced to lay off some of its staff.

Employees Look For Empathy

A survey by Businessolver, a provider of benefits administration technology, found that while 60% of CEOs view their organization as empathetic, only one in four employees does. Employees said verbally acknowledging that you are listening, maintaining eye contact, showing emotion, and asking questions were the top four ways leaders could convey empathy.

Here are three ways you can deliver bad news while demonstrating empathy.

Be Honest

While the interaction is almost always uncomfortable, leaders should confront reality by describing things as they really are instead of sugarcoating the news, says Matthew Randall, executive director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania. "Refrain from evading the facts or spinning the truth just to ease the outcome," he says.

Transparency will also help managers protect the company climate, adds Stuart Sidle, a professor of organizational psychology and associate provost for strategic initiatives at the University of New Haven.

"Leaders who deny all responsibility for bad times, who usually present bad news as a surprise, or who have non-credible surrogates deliver the bad news are likely to foster a cynical climate," he says. "Once cynicism infects the work environment, employees are much less likely to be understanding or cooperative in the face of bad news," adds Sidle.

Show Compassion

Managers should think about their delivery in advance, and how they can stay calm, caring, and authentic, says Sidle. "If possible, avoid giving bad news at a time where recipients will be forced to suffer alone without support from HR or opportunities for follow-up questions, such as on a Friday afternoon in most companies," he says.

Also, deliver news in a location that allows the recipient or recipients to maintain their dignity; a place where can they have an emotional reaction without feeling publicly embarrassed.

"Individual reactions to bad news vary and feelings such as guilt, anger, shame, or remorse may surface unexpectedly," adds Randall. "An appropriate location will help to limit outside interruptions, as well as preserve the receiver’s self-esteem," he says.

Provide Adequate Time

Use short, sweet, and simple language, and try to be as clear as possible, says Stephanie Felgoise, professor and vice-chair of psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "Identification of direct implications for the recipient would be most helpful," she says.

Then give the recipient enough time to process and respond to it by displaying emotions or asking questions, says Felgoise.

"The person delivering the bad news may best help the recipient by asking him or her to first share their understanding of the situation," she says. "This allows a shift in thinking by the recipient. The deliverer may then ask what immediate questions or concerns the recipient has."

RELATED: These are the Most Empathetic Companies in the World

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