Being the bearer of bad news in the office is always an unpleasant task, but there are some methods that are more unpleasant than others. A new survey of preferred methods of giving and getting bad news found that most of us prefer directness and candor over the cushion of small talk when discussing the breakdown of social relationships — like a breakup with your romantic partner or your employer. We just want to know where the fire is so we can get out.
In a survey of 145 participants, Brigham Young University linguistics professor Alan Manning and the University of South Alabama’s Nicole Amare got participants to rate how they would want to receive different bad news scenarios. The majority of participants valued clarity and directness over being eased into the information.
“If you’re on the giving end, yeah, absolutely, it’s probably more comfortable psychologically to pad it out — which explains why traditional advice is the way it is,” Manning said. “But this survey is framed in terms of you imagining you’re getting bad news and which version you find least objectionable. People on the receiving end would much rather get it this way.”
The survey showed how we don’t want to hear bad news. Here’s how to deliver it to your co-workers with grace and compassion for them:
1) No small talk
Good managers who make small talk before delivering bad news are usually considerate, compassionate people who think that talking about an employee’s family or weekend plans is a polite way to lift an employee’s spirits before delivering the crushing blow.
But the most compassionate move is to be direct about the bad news. Of course, you don’t want to just blurt out, “You’re fired!” for all to hear, but the researchers suggested that the buffer can be as small as telling the employee “we need to talk.” That’s enough to signal the severity of the situation. Once you get the employee in a one-on-one setting away from prying eyes, rip the BandAid off quickly and explain why you’ve called for this meeting.
2) No corporate jargon
Nervous managers often use corporate speak or legalese to hide behind the weight of their actions when saying terrible news, thinking that it will lessen the pain — or, at least, ease their personal pain at having to do this. I’m not telling you bad news, the company’s jargon is telling you bad news. It’s a passive way to distance yourself from a crisis. I once had a manager who announced a series of layoffs at my company as “employees being impacted,” a euphemism that created confusion and chaos in an already emotional period at work.
Deliver the unfortunate news clearly without metaphor, so that employees can process the bad information more quickly instead of wasting time deciphering jargon from meaning.
3) Let the recipient of bad news express emotion
Acknowledge the emotion in the situation. After bad news like terminations, layoffs, or pay cuts, grief, shock, and anger are to be expected. Have tissues on hand.
Allow employees to vent their frustrations at the news, but don’t get into a debate, because the information you’re delivering is not a negotiation, it’s a fact.
4) Time it well
Once you learn of bad news you’ll need to deliver to an employee, it’s best to schedule a time as soon as possible with as much discretion as you can. As career coach Hallie Crawford notes about a speedy news delivery, “Letting the person know as soon as possible is a way to show that you respect him or her, and again, show your professionalism.”
Unless the news is very urgent, career experts suggest timing it for end of day when fewer people will be in the office. The overarching goal with any advice on how to give bad news compassionately is to preserve the dignity of the recipient as much as possible. That means no babying them with overly polite small talk. It means treating them as a professional and telling them straight up what’s wrong.