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How to deliver bad news with compassion to employees

The world of work is known to be cut-throat – whether that’s in the form of making employees redundant, or denying them the promotion or raise they rightly deserve. Now more than ever, this is the case as businesses in the UK (and all over the world) are struggling to stay afloat. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that the increase in the country’s redundancy rates during the COVID-19 pandemic is faster than during the 2008 to 2009 global economic downturn – and that says a lot about the state of the economy currently.

Granted, bad news is a fact of life and one that simply can’t be avoided. That being said, the way that the bad news is delivered is arguably just as important as the content of the news itself. For the sake of compassion (especially during these unprecedented times), employers should ensure that any bad news delivered is done so appropriately. If you’re not sure how to go about doing this, Pacific Prime UK is here to give you advice and share with you some words of wisdom.

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Get your facts straight on the who, what, and why of the bad news in question

If you’ve been told to deliver bad news to an employee, the first thing you need to do is make sure you have the following information in hand: What exactly is the news? Why has the decision been made? Who will be affected? And is the decision final? If not, is there room for negotiation? Consider any other follow-up questions that may come up in the context of the news you’re about to deliver.

This is because the last thing you want is to be unable to answer their basic follow-up questions, leading to even more uncertainty for employees on top of unsettling news. What’s more, being able to answer their questions shows that you’ve thoroughly considered all aspects of the decision and have taken the time to find potential resolutions. This will make them feel like you care about and sympathize with them.

Find a middle ground between being direct and empathic in your delivery

Employees want to hear the bad news clearly, in a way that shows you care. Therefore, strike a balance between being direct and empathic. Being too matter-of-fact makes you come across as a compassion-less person, while being too emotional (such as breaking down) risks the core message being lost. To master your delivery, practice delivering the bad news beforehand. Of course, no conversation is scripted. But practicing enables you to develop and hone your interpersonal style, as well as allows you to be your best self.

Here is a rough structure you can follow when delivering the bad news:

1. Don’t beat around the bush and get straight to the point: What is the bad news?

Get straight to the point by saying “We need to talk” or “I have some bad news”. Avoid beating around the bush by saying things like “The company is going through a lot of change” or something similar. This is because the latter is more to ease your anxiety in delivering the bad news, rather than making it any easier for employees to accept the news. The quicker you share the news, the quicker everyone can be relieved and work towards solutions (if applicable).

Pro tip: Don’t forget to pay attention to your body language and make sure you maintain eye contact while talking to employees, as this can help them feel like you’re confident and focused on them.

2. Provide context behind the bad news so employees know why the decision has been made

Next, give employees the context. They’ll want to know why this decision was taken and the impact it will have. Explain it to them simply, clearly, and honestly. While you may be tempted not to be harsh, it’s crucial not to sugarcoat as this doesn’t help anyone. What’s more, try to be balanced and neutral – even if you don’t agree with the decision. Picking sides will only cause employees to have false hope, and compromise your integrity and leadership.

In some cases, such as if an employee is being made redundant, there’s no further discussion. However, in other cases you may be able to turn the bad news into a learning opportunity. For instance, if a pay raise was denied because the employees’ performance is not up to mark, you can shift the focus on how the employee can improve and promise to revisit the issue of a raise at the next appraisal. This motivates the employee and makes you out to be a resilient leader.

3. Ask employees if they have any further questions, and talk about the next steps

Finally, give employees the space to ask questions and/or voice concerns. They may take some time to let the bad news sink in, so make sure you give them plenty of time to do so. Listen with empathy and let them know what the next steps are, if there are any. It may be difficult not to leave room for false hope – especially if employees are really affected by the bad news, but you need to make sure you don’t do that. What you can do instead is to step up as a leader, provide support, and encourage them.

Note: Employees’ mental health affects how they deal with bad news. Whether or not they disclosed their mental health issue, familiarize yourself with mental health from an HR perspective.

Don’t beat yourself up over it and prioritize your own mental health

Delivering bad news is not easy – especially if you don’t agree with the decision and feel sympathy for the employee. You may feel guilty or beat yourself up over it. What’s more, you may also feel rather anxious about delivering the bad news as you don’t know how the employee will react and what the most appropriate response is on your part. All of this can take a toll on your mental health and emotional wellbeing.

As such, you should find a way to deal with your emotions ahead of time. You need to prioritize your state of mind, including that of your employee. Rather than being mutually exclusive, they are in fact linked. Therefore, check what mental health support your organization provides (for example, employee assistance programs (EAPs) that offer counselling). Look into whether you can benefit from them, and also point the employee in the same direction.

Contact Pacific Prime UK today!

Hearing bad news can take a toll on employees’ health. If you’d like to support them, Pacific Prime UK can help. We are a global insurance broker and employee benefits specialist with 20+ years of experience helping organizations find the appropriate solution. Whether you’re looking for group health insurance or other employee benefits, we’ll put your organization’s needs first. In addition to this, we also use world-class technology such as our in-house Prime Care Portal (PCP) to help you simplify the entire plan administration process.

To learn more about how we can help, please contact our corporate team today!

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Content Creator at Pacific Prime UK
Suphanida aims to demystify the world of insurance by creating informative and engaging content. As a wordsmith, she spends the majority of her day writing and editing website content, blog posts, in-depth guides, and more.

Outside of work, Suphanida enjoys travelling to new places and immersing herself in different cultures.
Suphanida