In the movie Up in the Air, actress Anna Kendrick shadows co-star George Clooney as his character does his job—firing employees for other companies as a hire-on-demand terminator. He flies in from his company headquarters, sequesters himself with a video screen and a camera in a conference room, and then gives employees sitting in another room the bad news. As Kendrick later delivers the news of a layoff to an employee via that same sort of video conference, she chokes up.
Even in a Hollywood film, telling someone they’re losing their job isn’t easy.
The reality in 2010 is that many supervisors and company executives are in similar situations regularly. It may not always be the ultimate bad news—i.e., someone getting fired or a position being eliminated by a reduction in force. Still, discussing work furloughs, reductions or changes in benefits packages or any potential mood-altering development is never easy. There’s no perfect time to deliver that news, but there are some important elements that can soften the blow.
Heart to Heart
“You have to start by sharing how hard this decision was to make,” says Kerry Patterson, chief development officer and co-founder of Provo-based VitalSmarts. “The person who is meeting with that employee should share a personal experience involving a layoff or detail other things that have been done by the company to try to avoid layoffs. Having a heart-to-heart discussion rather than just a discussion of facts is the better way to go.”
Patterson has co-authored three New York Times-best selling books dealing with employer-employee interaction, including “Crucial Conversations.” VitalSmarts trains executives in improving their organizational performance.
“There are many executives who simply can’t do it, who can’t face their employees face-to-face and have these kinds of discussions,” he says. “They are unwilling to show emotions for fear of looking weak. So it sometimes falls on someone else to be the bearer of bad tidings.”
Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts and Patterson’s co-author, says such scary conversations “are crucial conversations. In these moments, most people run the other way because experience tells them the other person will be angry or defensive.”
Grenny conducted a poll that revealed that nearly one-third of employees put off having a “scary conversation” with their bosses for at least a month, and some for as long as a year. And some employers feel the same way about talking to their staff members.
“Sometimes the person who is letting the employee go doesn’t take responsibility for that decision, even if they are their immediate supervisor,” Patterson says. “They become the magical disappearing supervisor—essentially cutting themselves out of the process and in essence telling the employee ‘you may want to go to talk to someone else.’ That’s wrong. The supervisor needs to take ownership, and if it’s a layoff, then mourn with the employee, expressing how painful the decision is, but that it’s just a business decision.”
Candid, Caring and Concise
“The layoff conversation is a difficult one,” says Monica Whalen, president and CEO of The Employers Council in Salt Lake City. “It is often hard to predict how the employees will respond to the news.”
Whalen, whose company has provided human resource and management support to member companies since 1941, says anyone having to give the word to an employee about a reduction in force needs to be prepared—and rehearsed.
“Let’s face it, even CEOs are nervous when they have to have a difficult conversation,” she says. “So I advocate that they practice it in front of a mirror. And practice the three ‘Cs’.”
Those letters stand for candid, caring and concise, she says.
“The bearer must be honest and forthright, but then quickly move to refocusing on the future,” she says. “They must show care and concern, acknowledge the employee’s pain and try to put themselves into that person’s shoes. Anticipate their disappointment and address it head on. And be prepared to give a concise explanation as to why the decision was made.”
Those same techniques should be used with the employees who aren’t being laid off as well.
“You want to maintain morale, not trigger a mass exodus,” Whalen explains. “Give those employees a chance to get on board and support the decision to make changes for the financial good of the company and for them. Try to get them to buy in to the decisions.”
Of course, sometimes the “bad news” doesn’t involve losing a job. It might be simply telling an employee they aren’t getting a promotion they were expecting.
“You need to share the pain with them, work with them on handling the facts and reasons why that promotion didn’t work out,” Patterson says. “Let them know you feel for them, and remember that even if they start to get angry, they still need to be listened to.”
He recommends that when negative news is delivered, particularly when it involves a firing for cause, that two supervisors be present.
“You need to take into consideration your own personal safety first,” Patterson says. “An employee can become emotional, and sometimes even violent, and it’s wise to have two people for both safety and to witness how the news was presented and received.”
He says being aware of that employee’s body language is also important, as they “might get their adrenaline going and preparing for fight or flight. When they are in that state of mind, they may not be hearing what you’re saying, no matter how caring or compassionate you are.”
Is there a better time to meet with that employee, or a key way to reach them?
“I don’t think there’s any one preferred tactic,” Whalen says, “but a combination of strategies should be used. I firmly believe that how you deliver bad news will affect how employees respond to it. It should always be done in person and with a personal touch. And you have to be cautious with the language you use—don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
Both Patterson and Whalen agree that once the decision has been made to let someone go or make other changes, employees should be told as soon as possible.
“I have a very good friend who’s a telecom executive, and this is what he says,” Whalen adds. “‘Bad news does not get better with age.’”