Workplace Wellbeing

How to Share Bad News with Employees with Clarity and Empathy

Approaching tough conversations with empathy and clarity can help employees feel more supported. Here’s exactly how HR leaders can do this, while protecting their own mental health.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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    Bad news is inevitable in the workplace. How it’s delivered is not.

    Having hard conversations with integrity and empathy for the other party is a fundamental human skill that’s useful in many situations. It’s also an important part of People leaders' role in the workplace. Especially now, as we face difficult economic times, leaders are tasked with conveying hard news as ethically and empathetically as possible, while also safeguarding their own mental health and supporting employees in the aftermath. 

    Not an easy thing to pull off. Whether it’s laying employees off, announcing a hiring freeze, delivering news of canceled projects, or discussing poor performance with an employee or team, the way news is communicated affects the company’s reputation, employee engagement, and attrition rates. When bad news is shared with employees thoughtlessly and mechanically, it can be a dehumanizing process—the kind of event that becomes a permanent part of company lore and causes disquiet and disengagement among workers. People leaders also have to manage their own mental health as they engage with employees' strong emotions during difficult conversations. It’s hard to watch people suffer, especially if you are the person delivering news that causes it.

    The mental health burden for leaders 

    It’s understandable that much of the focus on giving bad news is about the impact to the employee receiving the news. We’ll discuss that a bit later. But the other critical part of this equation is the burden leaders shoulder when they have to deliver difficult information. When giving someone unwelcome news, you essentially become the focal point of the recipient’s pain as they process their emotions. Telling someone they’ve been laid off or demoted is life altering news, and likely to cause a strong emotional reaction.

    After performing this task repeatedly, leaders may develop stress triggers: emotional exhaustion, a desire to quit, negative self-focused emotions, and anxiety. Those who regularly deliver bad news may also feel stigmatized by other employees who perceive them as the source of their pain. This is why leaders need support before, during, and after a hard conversation, both from their organization and from professional mental health providers

    As an example, our Care Navigators can role play with your managers beforehand, giving them guidance around what to say and not say, and how to respond in a productive, supportive way. They check back in to see how that conversation went and if the manager needs additional support—which is often what’s needed most. Mental health providers can also teach leaders the tools they need to take care of their own mental health while ethically navigating difficult conversations in the workplace.

    Deliver hard news with empathy and clarity

    Telling someone they’ve been laid off is rarely a joyful occurrence, and how it’s done has a lasting impact on all parties. 

    You can’t shield employees from pain. That isn’t under any leader’s control. What is under their control is approaching a painful experience with empathy and respect, and ensuring no one will feel dehumanized or belittled.

    Before the news is delivered, it’s essential for HR and the leaders who are involved to spend some time thinking things through and imagining how the process is going to play out. 

    In other words, develop a clear strategy:

    • In what setting will the news be shared?
    • Who will deliver the news?
    • What’s the timeline?
    • What is the full context, what will be shared, and exactly what words will be used?
    • Why is this conversation happening and how were these decisions made?

    As you’re discussing what will be shared, it’s critical to stay away from corporate jargon and euphemistic phrases. Be direct, honest, and clear. It’s okay to let employees see that delivering this information is hard for you, too.

    Take the time to get it right

    During the planning process, make sure everyone is on the same page. Gather all the facts and create a strategy to deal with the aftermath. If the company is restructuring or implementing a hiring freeze, think about how to communicate to employees what the plan is moving forward, and how the decision was made. It’s also important not to delay once the issue is clear. Letting employees know tough information right away is better than allowing rumors to spread.

    Lastly, be prepared to articulate the situation and answer questions, empathize, listen, and validate feelings. Schedule time for employees to give feedback once they’ve had time to process the information. Don’t interrupt while employees are processing and sharing their feelings and thoughts.

    Regardless of the nature of the news, employees are going to have questions. Think through what questions might come up and how to answer them in a way that shows employee concerns are taken seriously.

    All of this thought and consideration will be noticed by employees. The extra effort is worth it.

    Be human

    The previous section detailed some large scale strategies for delivering bad news. To zoom in a bit, let’s talk about how to show empathy during the actual conversation or meeting where this information is communicated. 

    A recent survey by the Center for Compassionate Leadership shows a gap between how leadership rated their vulnerability and compassion toward employees, and how employees perceived those traits. 

    When employees were asked how they wanted to be treated by leadership, the phrase that showed up most often was “be human,” followed by “trust” and “openness.”

    Here are some other ways employees responded to this question:

    • “Be human. Show me you care about me and the other employees.” 
    • “Be treated like an individual human with unique needs.”
    •  “Care about your employees and families.”
    •  “With humility and humanity.” 
    • “Don’t communicate using corporate speak.” 
    • “Express empathy, kindness, and concern for the people working in your company.” 
    • “Appreciate your employees and teams.”

    Tap into your emotional intelligence

    These are valuable insights into how People leaders and managers/supervisors can use their emotional intelligence and empathy during hard conversations with employees. 

    While it’s not possible to completely avoid discomfort, leaders can mitigate that pain by:

    • Spending extra time with people who are really upset by the news, allowing them to process their feelings and feel heard
    • Being open and non-defensive, holding space for employees to talk through their feelings in an honest way, even if it’s uncomfortable

    In the event of layoffs, allow people to pack up their office on their own time—without security standing around watching them—and say goodbye to their coworkers. Yes, this may feel more uncomfortable than immediately escorting the employee out, but giving people time to say their goodbyes and make peace with the decision is less dehumanizing. People leaders and managers can also advocate for integrity and empathy in the process of delivering bad news or implementing layoffs/hiring freezes. Integrity, in this case, means being thoughtful, empathetic, and doing things the right way—even if it’s a bit harder, a bit more complex, and takes more effort.

    Communicating bad news is a conversation, not a proclamation

    Part of ethically giving employees bad news is understanding that after it’s given, employees may go through waves of difficult emotions. The news could change the course of their career, and have an immediate or delayed impact on their family and their mental health.

    It’s important for leaders to:

    • Follow up by checking in with employees. Provide multiple feedback forums, and let team members know their managers are available for one-on-one conversations to talk through any questions or concerns.
    • If the news is delivered in a group setting, give employees both group and individual feedback forums, along with time to process the information. People will need different amounts of processing time before they’re ready to discuss their thoughts and feelings. 
    • If possible, allow employees to be part of dealing with the bad news. If there’s a hiring freeze, the company isn’t doing well, or a group or team is struggling with poor performance, employees can team up with supervisors and/or leaders to brainstorm and problem solve. 
    • Shift the focus to solutions, involving employees in a series of conversations, brainstorming sessions, and forward looking initiatives. 

    Progress is not neat or linear, and hard times can be opportunities for building resilience and stimulating new growth.

    Mental health support for leaders and employees

    This entire conversation is, of course, rooted in mental health. Having hard conversations in both professional and personal settings is about emotional regulation, communication skills, active listening, and showing emotional intelligence through validation, empathy, and support. Specific skill sets are required to process heavy emotions and deal with the effects of witnessing or helping someone work through those emotions. One way to equip People leaders and supervisors is by implementing an innovative EAP that provides manager support and training and fast access to a precise, personal, and proven mental health solution.

    Training People leaders and managers to become mental health advocates, well versed in navigating difficult conversations, underpins all the preceding strategies we’ve discussed. In tandem with offering mental health support, it’s also helpful to send out reminders about the benefits included in your EAP, discuss their use during weekly or monthly staff meetings, and have your leaders and supervisors recommend them to employees on a regular basis. 

    There are seasons in everyone’s life when they need extra support.

    Hard conversations are part of the workplace. Let’s make them better.

    As we live through tumultuous economic times and face a possible recession, it’s important that companies are mindful of how they deliver bad news and follow up afterward. 

    Low engagement and turnover continue to pose issues for many organizations. Sharing difficult information with empathy is part of the equation in keeping employees engaged and feeling supported.

    Hard conversations are a regular part of the workplace, but leaving employees feeling dehumanized and treated poorly doesn’t have to be.

    Read this blog next to learn how you can elevate the support your managers receive, especially during a workplace or global crisis. 

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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