How to relay bad news to the workers

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Rey Elbo-125

In The Workplace

Our company will be sold to a competitor. The sale may result in a massive restructuring and job losses. Being head of the human resources department, I was tasked to create a communication plan for the employees who may be demotivated because of the impending sale. How should I proceed? What are the things that I must consider to minimize the adverse effects on employee morale? – Deep Blue Sea.

A priest was preaching to his congregation about the difference between heaven and hell. To emphasize the difference between the two, he asked that all who wanted to go to heaven stand up with him. At the signal, all parishioners rose. He then asked that all who wanted to go to hell stand up with him. No one rose.

For full dramatic impact, he waited for about 30 seconds while scanning the audience before continuing. The silence was broken by a 10-year old who slowly rose to his feet. The astonished priest spoke to the boy. “Surely, son, a fine young man like yourself does not want to go to hell.” The boy answered:

“Maybe not, reverend. But I just couldn’t stand the sight of you standing there all alone.”

As distasteful as it is, just like the little boy in our story, there are inevitable occasions when you have to take a stand and be in solidarity with new management and perform your job as the bearer of bad news to the employees. With the new owners, it is expected that there will be job transfers, demotions, and job losses due to redundancy or the introduction of new work methods.

However, no matter how unpalatable your new task may appear to be, there are several ways to go about it to minimize the emotional letdown for you and the workers. Explore the following:

One, ask the new owners what things they want to do first. Or would they rather hear your recommendations first? Find out. Try to determine the new management style by learning as much as you can from all available materials on the Internet or some other places. Do your homework. Then take it from there.

Two, devise your communication plan, resources needed, and the timelines. Do research on the things that will help you bridge the gap between the new owner’s interests and that of the workers. Then seek management approval. Include in the plan the introduction of the new management team to the employees, if necessary.

Three, organize a town hall meeting as soon as possible. Face the people. Don’t even think of issuing a circular as this could be misinterpreted as lack of sincerity. Talk to the workers and don’t delay. Every day of delay creates the possibility of an information leak. If this happens, the employees’ fears may blow out of proportion which could make your life more difficult.

Four, anticipate all difficult questions from the employees. Prepare a list and send it to the new owner so they can be guided during the town hall meeting or meetings. Likewise, anticipate the new owner’s answers by giving them a list of all objective and positive approaches in dealing with those difficult questions.

Five, understand the workers’ poor morale after conveying the bad news. They may feel emotional, lousy and it is possible absenteeism could rise. Sympathize with the people but not to the point of exaggeration. Also, avoid humor at all costs even if you try to lighten the mood. Don’t even think of making light of things as it could be misinterpreted as sarcasm.

Six, discuss the reasons for the sale of the company to a new owner. This may be obvious to some people but not all can understand it from the management’s perspective. However, if you are the HR head, leave it to the new owner to discuss the reasons. They are more credible than any other persons in the organization.

Last, open up to those people who would be adversely affected. In case of job losses, demotions or transfers to unfavorable departments or locations, it should always be done in private with those concerned. Choose a private room where no disturbances are possible and keep things confidential.

If there’s no urgency, schedule the meeting for late in the day, when everyone is about ready to go home. Generally, it’s a good time to relay bad news.

Whatever happens, it’s always a good idea to remain objective and positive all the way, even if you think you’ll be affected by the restructuring. It’s always the best approach to remain gainfully employed.


ELBONOMICS: You can’t control the bad news, but you can create the good news.

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