Best Practice

Breaking bad company news: How IC and HR can be a force for good in tough times

Breaking bad or difficult news to employees is never easy, but neither is dealing with the loss of your job, or the uncertainty of furlough or a cut in your hours.

But this is the reality facing millions of companies of all sizes around the world in the economic fall-out of COVID-19.

As business leaders and owners assess the damage to their turnover caused by coronavirus and look for ways to adapt and adjust their business models to survive the next phase of the COVID-unknowns, bad news for some inevitably lurks round the corner in the form of job changes and redundancies. 

So, how can Internal Comms and HR be the force for good during hard times?

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Empathize all the way

Jacinda Adern, the New Zealand Prime Minister deservedly gets a mention here first for being an exemplar in empathetic communication and leadership.

Her empathy and relatability have built trust in the government and her messaging has cut through the panic resulting in her citizens taking the right action, effectively ending the transmission of coronavirus throughout the entire country.

She’s walking the path of the regular citizen, taking time to understand their perspective and not be afraid to show her own emotions and struggles.

If IC and HR can coach and support leaders to be more empathetic like Jacinda we’ll definitely be taking communications and employee support in the right direction.

Be open and honest

Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, is another shining example of communicating bad news well. His layoff letter is well-publicized, principally because it was shared on their website almost immediately after communicating to their staff (a note worth taking in its own right!).

His letter exudes openness, honesty and clearly shows, like Jacinda, that he’d walked the path to this point with his staff. He’d never shied away from the bad news, he’d been open about looking at all corners of the business to adapt to the future and he was truthful throughout.

Bad news is never easy to share, but honesty and empathy add an appreciated touch, not salt, to the wound.

Communicate with context, clarity, and conciseness

During times of high emotions, communicating effectively can be extremely difficult because the emotional brain hijacks any logical thinking, meaning in times of stress we act and think in extreme or usual ways.

One way we can help employees overcome the emotion is to share messages, and especially decisions that impact staff, with explanations and context, and use simple, concise language. Always explain the why, simply.

Apologize

It takes courage to make a difficult decision knowing the impact it will cause on employees’ lives.

Yet it is the apology alongside such a decision that shows real courage. Apologizing shows integrity and care for others which in turn builds empathy and respect with those it affects. Genuine heartfelt apologies, especially when difficult decisions are being shared, take the sting out of the decision itself. Only a little, but every little helps in times like these.

Go the extra mile

If you think there’s more than can be done to help and support colleagues, then try to do it.

Keep your networks open and connected and find out what employees will need to help them through the changes.

And don’t underestimate the needs of any employees being left in employment. Survivors guilt is a commonplace experience for those seeing their colleagues leave the company or change roles when theirs remains untouched. It requires acknowledgment and support in its own right.

Brainstorm ways you can make any transition to the next phase easier for staff, whatever that looks like.

Following up with Managers to see how they’re coping. Handwritten notes of thanks to staff from the CEO. Continuing their benefits package for 3 months after they leave the company.

Or filling your company collaboration space with posts of gratitude and fond memories, asking colleagues to share photos of their best work moment or acknowledging and giving thanks to a colleague. It can be the simple, thoughtful touches that count.

And let’s not leave leaders out of the equation too. IC & HR can play a highly trusted and supportive role by listening to their leader’s concerns as a fellow human being.

Ask how they’re doing and what do they personally need right now? There’s a role to play in coaching and mentoring the leader through these difficult times, letting them express their own emotions in a safe space and even help them to recognize and deal with their own survivor’s guilt.

Acknowledge and celebrate the past

Part of the process of dealing with change is to honor the past. Leaving a job or a company can create a sense of grief over the loss of what they once had. While it seems counterintuitive to celebrate during a difficult time, if all employees are allowed to celebrate their past it helps them deal with the current situation and move on more positively.

Change is difficult for everyone and we all deal with it differently. Anything that IC and HR can do to uphold empathy and humanity in the communications and actions taken through the next phase of this crisis will all go down in the history books as being a force for good.

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