Slide background
Slide background
Slide background
Slide background
Slide background
Slide background

Being the bearer of bad news

Many public sector managers now find themselves having to convey bad news to their staff. Steve Botham provides some tips on how to make the best of a bad situation.

Nobody likes giving bad news – it is not a pleasant experience and there can be many negative consequences if we get it wrong. Yet across the public sector many leaders are preparing themselves to look colleagues (and often friends) eye to eye and say “I’m sorry you’re redundant”. But the bad news does not end here – you may have equally difficult conversations when you tell people “You’re not redundant but I am afraid your job is going to get a lot more complex and demanding.” Indeed the pain may continue into uncomfortable conversations with Members, partners and the general public.

In theory this is a part of a leader’s responsibilities – but in reality this is new territory for many – and there will not be any opportunities for practice runs! Working in HR in the motor industry in the 1980’s and in Financial Services at the end of the dotcom boom I have given many people bad news and have seen many examples of poor practice.

Some managers destroy their credibility when they seem to handle this process callously, and whole organisations can become toxic when redundancy programmes are seen to be unfair, brutal or secretive. More recently we have seen organisations where commitment and loyalty have dropped sharply when the workforce were informed about their futures by text. Managers hate giving bad news and poor managers choose poor methods of doing it.

It helps to think through your personal approach to giving bad news – so you can act in a way that is true to your values, looks at the long term impact on the organisation and enables you to be authentic. The starting point is – what outcome do you want from a bad news process? Poor practice has often been driven by selfish outcomes where managers have decided “I want to get this out of the way quickly with the least emotional trauma possible”. The more professional approach is “I want to treat each person with respect, and to manage the process in a way that best enables those made redundant to move on with dignity - and those that remain to deal objectively with the challenges that lie ahead and have confidence in my leadership.”

When handling redundancy conversations you need to prepare yourself emotionally – and anticipate each individual’s response. Some people will be withdrawn, others angry, some may be very sympathetic to the dilemma you face. It is really helpful to have an agenda with some bullet points to make sure you know the issues you want to cover. Clearly they want you to cut to the chase and tell them the outcome – after that they will find it difficult to take in what you say.

Key things to cover include – giving clarity on what will happen to the individual, the timescales, what support is in place, what will happen to their job and your expectations of them in the time remaining (and check they understand this). They will often want to know how the news is going to be communicated to their team – and what the message will be. Give realistic guidance on the support you personally can give (don’t set false and ultimately disappointing expectations). They may well benefit from another conversation in 24 – 48 hours time.

People who have been made redundant often have very immediate things on their mind – like “how do I tell my family”. If appropriate you might want to ask – “is your family expecting this?” and then move on to “have you given any thought to what you might do in the future?” It is really important to thank people for their contribution – I have often stressed to people that it is their job that is going and to point out what you have valued from them as an individual.

Sometimes it helps their “coping mechanisms” if they know beforehand that redundancies will be announced tomorrow or the day after so they can prepare themselves (and family, friends etc). Empathy is important at this time – try to avoid the trap some managers fall into when they tell the individual that this is a bad time for them as well – people do not want to hear that right now!

For those keeping their jobs this can be a time of bad news too. There is lots of evidence that many teams go through a distinct bereavement process and some of the “survivors” can feel guilty about retaining their job when friends and colleagues have not. In these challenging times, of course, those that remain will often find themselves with considerably more responsibilities, a wider range of stakeholders and the need to drive significant change whilst delivering an enlarged operational focus.

They may well be internalising some critical questions such as – “How will I cope? How will I manage this new group who will be feeling the loss of their old manager? How will I break this news to my family – what will the impact be on them? How do I make sense of all the issues and challenges? “

ACSeSIn our experience people take a long time to adjust completely and will go through a number of stages when they doubt they can cope with the change (especially as they get to broaden their understanding of their new  roles). The key issue at this stage is to help them get focus and clarity. One of the more effective techniques is to ask them to come back to you with a plan that shows their key priorities, their key challenges and looks at
the next ninety days and how they will move things forward. They need your support, advice and encouragement during this time – and you need to be able to adjust your time to have more regular feedback and catch up sessions.

Finally this is an important time to manage yourself – your time (with so many additional things to do during this period), your emotions, your focus and your ability to give a clear sense of the way forward to people who  are looking for direction. Inevitably this may be a very stressful time. You need to be realistic about this and ensure you get the right level of support, so you can talk through your concerns and issues, before and after the “bad news events”.

We all handle stress in different ways but one of the key issues to watch will be your energy levels and the need for you to “re-charge the batteries”. One of the key ways to handle this stress is to know that you have done this difficult job in a professional and effective way. This takes us back to the need to set yourself some clear outcomes – they give you a clear reference point – so that you can be objective when you review your
approach. It will not be easy – but it can be done well.

Steve Botham is a director of Caret, specialists in leadership and organisational change.

This article first appeared in 'Leadership in an Age of Change & Austerity', published in May 2011 by the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS).

To order or download a copy from the ACSeS website, please click here.