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?
Article by Mary Wright
Mary Wright is the Founding Editor of HR Gazette, an online magazine for HR professionals and employment lawyers. She specializes in workable business solutions to complex human resource problems. You can connect with her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.
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