June 1st 2009

Pharmaceutical Field Magazine - London

"We're letting you go"
How to break bad news effectively

Recent M&A activity highlights the continuing contraction of the pharmaceutical industry worldwide. One of the most uncomfortable tasks a manager will face during this recession will be making an employee redundant. Professional Voice offers some simple tips on how to deliver bad news without making matters worse.

One of the biggest communication challenges for business managers in downturn is that they will have to deliver much more bad news. While you'll never receive a round of applause for delivering bad news well, delivering it badly can create further problems: diminished trust in management, a disenfranchised workforce and an impact on productivity. How companies treat those they let go will have powerful long-term effects on those they want to retain. No matter how much bad news you have to deliver, you have to keep up morale and maintain the trust of your remaining employees during a difficult period.

So how do you tell someone they are going to be made redundant without generating ill feeling? As with all business communication, it's not just what you say but how you say it that counts. Getting the message right, delivering that message sympathetically and timing it well are all key factors.

Be honest
Giving bad news is difficult for the giver as well as the receiver and the temptation will be to try and soften the blow. Even doctors, who are trained to give some of the worst news, find it difficult. In fact 40% of them admitted in one survey to using euphemistic language or giving the news an overly positive spin in order to relieve themselves of having to deal with the patient's reaction. Is this what the patient, or the employee, would want?

It is essential to be completely honest and give the message clearly and concisely. The employee needs to know exactly where they stand and what (if any) options are available. It is vital, therefore, that you are fully prepared before the meeting begins – ensure you are clear on the notice period the company is offering, for example, and what the conditions of the redundancy are. The 'why' is also very important. The person will want to know why they have been chosen over others, what the process and criteria were. Ensure you have a sound business case for this person being chosen and avoid getting into any discussion of personal issues. Plan what you are going to say carefully. Even write it down. In periods of stress we are far more likely to forget our lines.

Get the timing right
One key area that is easy to overlook is the timing of the announcement or meeting. Last year the Conservative party announced job cuts just before Christmas, a truly dreadful time to make people redundant and a potential PR disaster. At Professional Voice we know of one company who recently announced proposed job cuts during the school holidays when many people were on leave. Some staff had to wait days before they could find out more information from their line managers and when those managers returned to work they had a huge fire-fighting task on their hands which could have been easily avoided.

Meet face-to-face
Once you're clear about what the message is and the best time (and place) to deliver it, the next step is the method of delivery. The best means is to do so in person. This may seem obvious, but I once worked for a company where a group of staff was given notice of redundancy by post – second class. The devil is in the detail, as they say. And people do notice those details. The second-class post issue caused a furore. To those employees, a letter showed a lack of courage and consideration, but second-class post was nothing less than an insult.

Being there, face-to-face, takes courage but it also allows you to soften the blow and manage the reaction. In the meeting speak slowly and clearly. Rushing will indicate that you want to get it over with. And while that may be a consequence of your own unease at a difficult task, for the listener it can seem that you don't care. Likewise, mumbling or using too many 'ums' and 'errs' will make you seem untrustworthy. Remember that in this highly charged situation the person receiving the news will not be processing information as quickly or as rationally as usual. Going slowly will allow them time to take the message on board.

Listen actively
Try to maintain eye contact and keep your body language relaxed and open, no matter how difficult it becomes. You don't want to look defensive. And be prepared for different reactions. Some people will get angry, others will cry, others will say very little. It's important to listen to whatever they have to say and allow them to get it out of their system.

And it's that 'active' listening that is so important. Try not to interrupt or to use expressions like "I know how you feel" or "If I was you I'd..." The best thing you can say is that you're sorry and offer whatever support you are able to under the circumstances. There is nothing you can do to make the recipient of bad news feel better at that moment, but your concern and willingness to listen will be appreciated.

Watch your tone
In his 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell discusses a study made by a US insurer on the incidences of malpractice suits filed against doctors. According to the research, the risk of being sued for malpractice had little to do with the number of mistakes a doctor made. It found that the element that corresponded most to the risk of doctors being sued was how the patients were treated during consultations, and in particular, the tone of voice the doctor used when he spoke to them. Doctors who spent a few minutes longer in consultations with patients, who made an effort to clearly explain the process, who were active listeners and who spoke in a concerned tone were much less likely to be sued for malpractice even though they made just as many mistakes as other doctors. The ones who were sued were often described as being dismissive or having a domineering or condescending tone. Overall it was the tone of voice that came out as the key decider in whether a doctor was more or less likely to be sued.

It is crucial, therefore, to think about how you sound when you are giving the news. We all understand how much power tone of voice has on a personal level, but in a business context, we often forget. In a situation where the content of the message and the tone of voice are in conflict, the listener will usually believe tone of voice over content. If you say "I'm sorry" but your voice says you're not, your listener will know.

Many managers overlook this part of the equation. As with the majority of business communication, they spend much more time thinking about what they are going to say, than how they are going to say it. Yet as Gladwell's case study illustrates, and our experience at Professional Voice supports, how news is delivered and the degree of empathy shown can make the difference between success and failure.

Provide support
It's not just how you behave during the meeting that will make a difference. The level of support that is given to an employee afterwards, how they are treated in the intervening weeks (assuming their redundancy comes with a notice period) is also important. It would be easy to let the awkwardness of the situation take over, to ignore the employee, but at this time they desperately need to be supported. Be accommodating if they need time off for interviews, offer support in the form of referrals or contacts, even help them with their CV.

And finally, remember those who are left behind. The people who still have their jobs often feel guilty or it could be that there is a lingering sense of insecurity in the workplace. Find ways to rebuild the team with positive messages and support. The key to growth when the recession abates will be an engaged workforce that is ready for a new challenge. The companies that succeed in the upturn will be those that maintain morale and motivation in the downturn, and the only way to do that is with effective, open communication.