How to Deliver Bad News in HR

Learn how to onboard and retain new employees with our free webinar 1/22 at 1 PM EST. Click here to register.
Termination of employment

One of the hardest things to do as an HR representative is to deliver bad news with a full stop. It is human nature to want to apologize, empathize, or sweeten a bitter pill. Continuing to talk, however, creates some pretty bad repercussions. Simply stated, if you continue to talk after the message is delivered:

You can’t listen. You don’t give the employee a chance to respond or explain. There may be a good (and even legal) explanation or excuse for the perceived misconduct. If you don’t hear it, or worse, ignore it, you could wind up creating legal claims where none existed in the first place. Sometimes, the employee was actually expecting worse news and if you keep talking, you prevent them from expressing relief or even agreement. Employee buy-in to bad news is the gold standard. You don’t get there through a monologue. It takes a dialogue.

You might say something patronizing. It is human nature to want to empathize, to express sorrow. Whatever. It sounds phony. Even if you have personally experienced being reprimanded, demoted, fired, been told you aren’t getting a raise or bonus, you do not know this employee’s particular situation and cannot fully empathize with the effect that bad news will have on his or her life. Moreover, this is not a time to create an “us against them” scenario. If you start down this road, you could be interpreted as siding with the employee against the decision-maker. Not a good place if you value your job.

You might dilute the message. I cannot think of a worse situation where you go through the effort and agony of delivering bad news and wind up with an employee who doesn’t know they’ve actually been reprimanded, demoted, fired….etc.

You might make the person angry. Google violence in the workplace. It is not a pretty list.

You might get it wrong. Write down what you are going to say. Reduce it to the barest, fewest-words-possible delivery. Read it aloud to yourself before meeting with the employee. Start the meeting by thanking the employee for meeting with you, and then say the words.

It may seem kind to explain, commiserate or just plain dress up delivery of bad news. It is not kind. It’s just easier. Hearing bad news is hard. Recognize, however, that delivery is hard, too.

Share your advice!

We’ve all been there and we’ve all experienced different issues that arise when having to deliver bad news in HR. What’s your advice to new HR or seasoned professionals?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments

  1. my favorite line has always been, “it’s nothing personal” or “it’s a business decision”. Trust me, not having a way to provide for your family is extremely personal. It is not the HR representative that created the decision, but they shield the responsible management from having to confront the impact on their people. maybe if they had to participate, there could be a little more effort to avoid that kind of “business” decisions. Years ago, “workplace” violence moved to the number one cause of death in the workplace (Osha reported). What was our response? put locks on the doors, and hide the manager’s personal information. Versus looking at the root cause of why people are pushed towards violence. Probably not the kind of comment one would expect on an HR blog, but if there is anyplace that there will be an eloquent response, this is it.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment, David. It is personal to the recipient. Often in trying to relieve our own feelings of guilt, fear or pity we try to get the employee to see the decision as impersonal (“Don’t be upset. It’s just business.”). Its best to deliver the message simply, in a direct, concise and truthful manner, because we cannot convince someone else not to feel bad when we are telling them something that will negatively impact their life.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for your comment, David. It is personal to the recipient. Often in trying to relieve our own feelings of guilt, fear or pity we try to get the employee to see the decision as impersonal (“Don’t be upset. It’s just business.”). Its best to deliver the message simply, in a direct, concise and truthful manner, because we cannot convince someone else not to feel bad when we are telling them something that will negatively impact their life.

    Reply
  3. Why would HR be delivering bad news unless it was delivering to one of its own? What we did was to coach the Managers and Supervisors in delivering the message to their direct reports which seems fair since more often than not the recommendation to terminate may originate with the same Managers/Supervisors.

    The message should be direct and not sugar-coated and should be as brief as possible yet explaining the reason for the termination. Provide the employee with the opportunity to ask questions – now or later (he/she may be in a state of shock when the message is delivered).

    Reply
    • Stanley, wonderful. Yes, if for no other reason, keep it brief so there are no loose edges that might become the basis for litigation. And hurray for your top mgmt, who didn’t let sub managers ooze out of the unpleasant task. Who shot old yeller, was it the HR rep? i don’t think so.

      Reply
    • Excellent point, Stanley. Optimally, the supervisor delivers-with a witness (who is usually HR). It is often left, however for the HR Rep to be the bearer of the bad news. And bad news is not always termination. What about when HR has to say no to a LOA, or tell the employee he or she has no more vacation days, or has to respond negatively to an employee asking to interview for an internal job posting. Delivering bad news in a compassionate yet concise manner is definitely an essential HR skill.

      Reply
    • Hi Stanley,

      I’ve had to deliver my share of bad news without the supervisor because I was directed by my boss. Many times HR is the scapegoat for uncomfortable conversations and situations. The manager is mysteriously absent or unavailable. Further in my career, I spent a lot of time coaching and training managers on what to say and how to say it sometimes by sitting in on the termination or through role play. In my experience, HR has to hold things together for the crappy managers. This means sometimes delivering bad news the right way to avoid a potential lawsuit or EEO charge.

      JMM

      Reply
      • JMM, what you say is completely true, it’s no fun to be the scapegoat. You use that word perfectly, if are not already familiar, look up the etymology of that word. I would offer this one comment, If a manager is really that in danger of creating a lawsuit for the company, isn’t it likely that they are wronging someone, and should step up to that responsibility. Maybe not in every case, but really, the manager makes a decision based on what he thinks, if what he thinks is illegal or discriminatory, why should the organization be able to abscond?

        Reply
        • David,

          Having worked in retail, call center, and hourly environments this happens all the time. I’m not certain of your background, but it is what it is. It’s not a discrimination issue. Managers just don’t like delivering bad news. And sometimes it is not worth the fight with your boss to make that manager deliver said news. In these industries where I have worked, employees are promoted into management because they are good worker bees and are not always generally good leaders.

          JMM

          Reply

Leave a Comment