Alan H. Palmer: How to deliver bad and really bad news properly

Talk Lean

Few of us have the thickness of hide or the liberality of Schadenfreude necessary to be comfortable when making a colleague redundant. That’s as it should be. However rational the capitalist imperative for companies to be efficient and staffed by the best, however sound the arguments at a macro-level, at the micro-level a human being is losing their livelihood and embarking on an uncertain future, with consequences for their family as well as themselves.  I certainly don’t aspire to be the person who teaches HR professionals how to rattle through 20 redundancies before lunch without turning a hair. The focus of the training run by our company, Interactifs, has always been the enhancement of business relationships – not the termination of them.

What I DO aspire to is helping to ensure that the person being made redundant leaves the room with their dignity intact, saying to themselves, “Well, at least the company was completely straight with me.”

Having other people ‘be completely straight with me’ is a universal human requirement. In the course of training business people, across 25 years, in how to deal more effectively with others, my colleagues at Interactifs have asked some 70,000 people at all levels, of all ages and both sexes, in multiple industries and functions and across diverse nationalities and cultures, how they prefer to be spoken to. The answers are invariable: “clear, direct, straight to the point, concise and concrete; as long as it’s also polite, courteous and respectful.”

Unfortunately most people believe they’re condemned to make a choice: to be direct but brutally so, or to be polite and courteous but then necessarily to go all around houses.  The contribution of Interactifs’ founder, Philippe de Lapoyade, was to provide a framework and tools to ensure that people CAN consistently be both candid and courteous in all circumstances. Doing so is the theme of my recent book, ‘Talk Lean: Shorter meetings. Quicker results. Better relationships. “

The choice “direct but brutal” or “polite but circuitous” seems particularly stark when it comes to redundancies. Sometimes the announcement ends up being both indirect AND brutal.  The example below is perhaps caricature……but not that much!

“So John, how do you think things have been going since our last little chat before Christmas? Oh I see. Well, I’m afraid I don’t have quite the same perspective. You’re still not pulling your weight and I don’t see any glimmers on the horizon which make me think that’s going to change. We’ve been more than fair in giving you every chance to do better, we’ve reduced your client list, we’ve….(bla bla bla for 5 minutes)……but the results just aren’t there. I think if you look at it from my perspective, you’ll see that I just don’t have any choice.  I’m getting huge pressure from above to improve results and I can’t go on defending you.  I think we’ve just about reached the end of the road and we’re going to have to let you go. We’ve put together a package which under the circumstances is frankly more than generous…..”

The announcement of the news has been delayed until well after John knows exactly what’s coming; he has to listen to a string of justifications and value judgments he hasn’t asked for before being done the courtesy of being told where they’re leading. And he doesn’t know what’s expected of him beyond ‘going.’

So how can you be both candid and courteous when announcing redundancy to someone? The sort of car-crash above can be avoided by respecting some simple principles – principles which apply to announcing any type of non-negotiable bad news (a refused promotion, a delivery delay, a price rise, a rejected holiday request):

Get the bad news out on the table at the earliest possible point in the meeting, which is to say as soon as you’ve done what’s necessary to give yourself a minimum level of comfort in announcing it. If the person suspects there’s bad news, they’ll thank you for getting it out quickly and not keeping them waiting for confirmation. If they don’t suspect there’s bad news, they will resent you if they find out later than sooner.

Saying openly and honestly at the outset how you feel about having the conversation will give you this necessary level of comfort. (The feelings you announce MUST be genuine because the other person will intuitively recognize the tears of the crocodile.)

Think about what the goal of your meeting is. ‘Announcing a redundancy’ is not a goal. That’s your job. Your GOAL for the meeting must necessarily involve what you want to obtain from the other person by the end of the meeting, or what you want to have produced together. You’ve already decided on the redundancy. It’s not negotiable. But there’s still plenty that IS negotiable.

Only provide explanations and details once you’ve given the news and once you’ve been clear about what you want to achieve as a result of providing those explanations and details.

The kinds of things which you may want to obtain from the meeting, which ARE negotiable and which may therefore constitute possible goals are:

  • The time needed for the other person to respond to the proposed severance package (the severance package is itself probably negotiable, but it’s unlikely to be negotiable BY THE END OF THIS MEETING).
  • Whether or not they feel that, at first view at any rate, the package looks like a fair one
  • What you can now do, within reason, for them not to feel the need to badmouth the company at every opportunity once they’ve left.
  • Whether or not at the end of the meeting they feel their dignity remains intact
  • Whether or not they’ll feel able to say to themselves at the end of the meeting “Sh*!t! What a bummer. But I guess at least the company’s played straight with me.”
  • The reasons communicated to internal and external audiences about the reasons for the departure.

An announcement which respects these principles will sound more like this:

  • “John, there’s no painless way of saying this for either of us and if I use the current rather silly euphemism, it’s because I don’t want this to be more brutal than it has to be. We’ve decided to let you go. I owe it to you to explain in detail why we’ve taken that decision – and indeed due process has obliged me to put it all down in a formal letter, which I have with me. We’ve put together a severance package which I want to take you through – and I’m hoping that you’ll agree to take whatever outside advice you consider necessary and to get back to me within 10 days with your thoughts on the package.”
  • Or perhaps “….that we reach agreement on the form of words we use to explain your departure both internally and externally.”
  • Or perhaps “…..that you tell me what I can do in the way that I handle this to be confident that you won’t feel the need to badmouth the company once you’ve left.”
  • Or perhaps “….that you feel that, at least at first view, the offer on the table is a fair one.”

Clear and direct; yet polite and courteous. The person on the receiving end will certainly feel that they have been treated with more respect. And if in consequence you also feel more comfortable delivering the news, then why not?

Alan H. Palmer has spent most of his career working in advertising and management consultancy, where he had experience sitting on both sides of the table in redundancy meetings. Today he runs the UK arm of training company Interactifs (www.interactifs.co.uk) and is the author of Talk Lean: Shorter meetings. Quicker results. Better relations. (Capstone, £12.99)(www.talk-lean.com )


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