When the News is Bad, the Communication has to be Great

And that’s how it started…

An Executive Assistant called an EA in another company to schedule a requested meeting between their bosses. As the EAs talked they saw several key execs from both companies were to be at the in-person, offsite meeting. What was odd was that the two companies were direct competitors in manufacturing.

Stemming from that conversation, the rumors of acquisition traveled like wildfire through both companies. Employees quickly realized the two competitors had multiple distribution centers throughout North America – some within 20 miles of one another. Mike, a father of 3 young kids and a Distribution General Manager for 10 years, became anxious that his center might be closed down. It was smaller and less tech-enabled than the competitor’s center 20 miles away. He asked his boss what was going on but got no answers. His boss hadn’t heard anything. Mike contemplated his options. One was ‘better safe than sorry’ and seek new employment.

In this case, the companies did merge and consolidate distribution centers yielding very positive outcomes such as increased speed and volume of distribution and market share. They used an approach to reassign people from both companies based on performance and Mike was made a General Manager in the previous competitor’s location. The issue was that leadership did not anticipate that they would “telegraph” the merger by setting up secret meetings via internal EAs. And once the rumors started, they were not prepared to inform people of the discussions, explain the benefits, and diffuse concern. In the absence of good communication, people conjure their own, often very negative, scenarios.

Unpleasant news is inevitable over the life of a company now more than ever as businesses struggle to manage through the COVID-19 pandemic. Layoffs and furloughs are hitting a wide range of industries. Business Insider published an article on Jul 30, 2020, with a long list of companies impacted and planning significant furloughs and layoffs.

United, American, Spirit, Southwest – airlines have been hit hard. In a July 30, 2020, internal memo, United Airlines said it would furlough a third of its pilots — 3,900 people. The airline previously announced on July 8 that it would issue layoff and furlough notices to 36,000 employees, including 2,250 pilots and 15,000 flight attendants. In a different approach, instead of involuntary layoffs, Southwest Airlines offered extended leave and exit packages. As of July 20, 28% of its workforce — mostly pilots and flight attendants — have accepted such deals.

Other examples from the last two weeks:

  • Energy: Oilfield services company Schlumberger said it is cutting roughly 21,000 jobs on July 24. It also reported second-quarter losses of $3.4 billion.
  • Retail: Tailored Brands, the parent company behind Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank, said it expects to layoff 20% of its workforce and shutter 500 stores on July 21.
  • Internet: LinkedIn said it would cut 960 jobs, or 6% of its global workforce, on July 21. The cuts will impact hiring and sales positions.
  • Automobiles: Daimler, the company that owns Mercedes-Benz, may cut 30% of its global workforce, Manager Magazine reported on July 22.
  • Banking: On July 9, Bloomberg Law reported that Wells Fargo is preparing to cut thousands of jobs out of its 263,000-person workforce.

In the absence of direct, honest communications from leadership, people gather their own data to draw conclusions. This may be through observations, rumors, incomplete or vague company comms, and external news and other factors. The conclusions are often negative leading to undue anxiety, reduced performance, and a spike in attrition.

COVID-19 has pushed many businesses into the position of having to communicate with employees about challenges to the business with no clear timeline for outcomes. As a leader, how should you deal with this?

11 Principles for Communicating in Difficult Times

Consider these eleven recommendations of principled actions when crafting communications to guide employees through difficult times.

1. Create a communications plan to see you through the entire journey

Sporadic, reactionary, or absent communications are anxiety-producing for employees – especially in times like now when there is so much uncertainty. To avoid this, create a thoughtful communication plan that considers who should get what messages from whom and when. Assembling a cross-functional team to help build the plan is a good way to ensure messaging truly represents everyone impacted or with a need to know.

2. Think in terms of what job or role a person has in the company and how this situation will impact them. Consider what information is relevant and meaningful to them

In general, segment people into like groups or “audiences.” Are they staff whose jobs will be impacted? Are they leaders or stakeholders? Are they external suppliers who need to know about a change in the business? What about customers?

  • Who is in this audience group?
  • How will they be affected?
  • What reaction will they have to it?
  • What are you hoping they will do as a result of the communication and what messages do they need to hear to affect that behavior?
  • When do they need to hear these messages?
  • What medium should we use for each message?
  • Who should communicate the messages to them?

3. Communicate using multiple mediums and channels to ensure everyone receives and understands the message

Studies show we are involved in communications 70-80% of our workday. There is a lot of competition for messaging. Leaders are sometimes overly confident that when they send a message it is heard and completely understood by everyone the first time. If employees are concerned about the current business environment, they are more likely to read messages from leaders, but still, studies show that up to two-thirds of emails never get opened. The reality is that messages – for many reasons – may be partially heard, misunderstood, or overlooked.  Consider using a variety of ways to send key messages to assure everyone will get and understand it. Think in terms of which channels and modalities work best in your company for different audiences.

4. Who gives a message is critical. Use multiple voices based on who is receiving the message

Not everyone will connect with a particular individual or identify with a given perspective. For issues that impact broadly across a company, top leadership should send the overarching communication. More detailed messages should come from someone closer to the impacted team and who has credibility with them. Messages from a trusted sender will garner more attention and positive interpretation.

5. Communicate clearly. Avoid sugar coating bad news and “corporate speak”

Especially for a message that may carry bad news, make the contents of your message extremely clear and specific. State the purpose, issue, actions being taken, how it impacts the individual and next steps. Intentionally simplify the language to avoid misunderstandings and ask some people from the audience to read and give you feedback on the clarity of the message. It is much harder to do damage control on a misunderstood communication than to test it to ensure the intended message and tone comes through.

According to 2017 research by professors at Brigham Young University and the University of South Alabama, the worst way to deliver bad news is to beat around the bush. The best way? “Rip off the band-aid”.

Keep difficult communications informative but succinct. For the initial communications get to the point very quickly and be very clear. For example, “Due to COVID-19, we missed our quarterly revenue target by 20% and do not anticipate improvements next quarter. We are reviewing many ways to manage through this which, unfortunately, includes a potential reduction in staff.  As we make decisions, we will keep you informed and will send a company-wide update within the next 4 days (give the actual date). We are saddened to be faced with these difficult decisions. We value and deeply appreciate each one of you.”

Avoid lengthy messages with non-critical information, especially in the initial communications. People may skim a message and extraneous or supporting information can cause confusion or raise more questions than they answer. What is critical that people need to know? What are the core messages? Supporting information can be included in subsequent, ongoing communications.

6. Communicate frequently. Avoid “one and done.”

In your communication plan, establish a cadence of messages by an audience that will keep them informed and assured that you are considering how the situation impacts them. Don’t leave people hanging and wondering what’s next.

We’ve probably all heard about the “rule of seven,” the same thing must be communicated seven times in seven different ways.  I’m not sure that applies to sharing bad news, but one well-accepted key to effective communication is reinforcement in many ways, through many channels, and by many people.

7. Honesty is the only policy

The truth is almost always less terrible than the fears that people build up; the truth buys credibility; and the mere fact of speaking the truth is another demonstration that something profoundly different is underway.

Demonstrate an appropriate level of openness: “If we know, we’ll tell you.  If we don’t know, we’ll tell you we don’t know.  If we can’t tell you, we’ll tell you why, and give you an estimated time when we can tell you.”

As in the example in #5, give people dates when they will get an update. If that date comes and you still don’t have more information, send a message saying why and when you expect to know. Never miss a promised date and always be forthcoming in what you can tell people. Try not to leave people “hanging” and wondering how they will be impacted – that can lead to a spike in attrition, including the loss of top performers. If you announce there will be layoffs, let people know they will be contacted directly if impacted and by what date. If someone hasn’t heard anything by that date, they can assume they will not be impacted.

8. Use emotion, not just logic

In difficult situations, employees’ first reactions will be to consider how they will be impacted, and it may feel very personal to them. Acknowledge this is a difficult time and that you care about the people side of the situation. Do not be afraid of using some softer language and including heartfelt words about your concern for the well-being of employees.

9. Anticipate people’s questions and possible resistance

Anticipate the questions, concerns, and possible resistance you may receive from people receiving the message. Carefully consider the audiences for each communication and the nature of the message, the impact to them, their perspective, and what you believe their responses may be. Draft each communication to proactively address those concerns.

10. Provide ways for people to ask questions and make comments

Good communication is not a one-way street! People will have questions and you want to be in control of the responses they get. If you aren’t, others may provide erroneous answers.

Create ways for people to submit questions and comments that get to the right people for response. Very importantly, respond to all feedback and publicize resulting actions or decisions. If you are hearing the same types of questions and concerns across the organization, consider creating frequently asked questions (FAQs) and making those available to employees, if the content is not too sensitive. Also consider providing managers with appropriate answers should they be asked these questions.

11. Cascade ownership for creating communication plans

In normal communications, it is typically okay to loop in other people to help create messages. Bad news is a bit different. It is safest to assume once the circle of who knows about bad news gets outside the top leadership, the news will start to spread. You want to be in control of how it spreads.

Your initial communications will likely be narrowed to company or department-wide communications from leadership about the nature of the situation. Select a trusted cross-functional team to create a broader communication plan. They can do the research and come back to the leadership team with a plan that shows key audiences, strengths and weaknesses in previous communication efforts, the best vehicles of communication to use for each audience, timelines for future audience-specific communications, and the messages to be delivered at each of those times.

This approach can also help those who will carry on after significant changes have occurred. They will need supportive messaging as they may be dealing with the aftermath such as saying goodbye to long-time colleagues and potentially have new or increased job responsibilities on short notice.

In closing,

COVID-19 is not going away in the short-term; the situation is fluid and challenges will very likely continue into 2021. As with the companies mentioned earlier, you may have several rounds of unwanted changes to your business. And other, non-COVID-19 situations may require you to send difficult communications.

Avoidance is tempting and easy to rationalize. Maybe you are not sure if you will have to reduce your workforce and won’t know for a month or two.  Maybe restructuring and reducing services is being discussed but nothing is concrete yet. It is tempting to hold off until you have solid information. But in the presence of rumors and the absence of good information, employees will create their own narrative and sometimes take action on it. Leaders are faced with extreme challenges. Not only must they formulate business plans for navigating COVID 19, but for keeping employees informed and morale up.

If I could give you only one piece of advice about communicating through tough times, it is this: Dissemination of timely, honest information is the most valuable tool you have.

About the Author:

Kathryn Manning

 Author: Kathryn Manning

Kathryn Manning has served as a director with St. Charles Consulting for 12 years. She has been in professional services for over 30 years assisting clients with organizational transformations, process improvement and human capital performance management. She spent 17 years with Arthur Andersen / Accenture in training and change management services and as a director with Parson Consulting for 4 years in a similar capacity. Kathryn has her B.S. of Business from California State University, Long Beach and her Masters in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University in Evanston Il.