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When the News is Bad
How to Tell Your Employees and Handle Your Own Survivors’ Guilt

by Jean Palmer Heck

JAN 2012 | Layoffs, salary reductions, plant closings—it’s happening in every economic sector, both locally and globally. Not a day has gone by in recent years without dire financial news. The employees whose jobs are eliminated suffer. So, too, do those who have to deliver the news.

When bad news happens, you are the person who has to tell your employees. It may not be what you envisioned when you began your career, but as boss, it’s your responsibility. How do you deliver the bad news with tact, concern and honesty? How do you ease tensions among employees who remain after a downsizing takes place? How do you keep your own spirit intact when the impact of what you say and how you say it will have long-term effects?

One issue often overlooked is the long-term psychological impact on the person who delivers bad news.

I have spoken with hundreds of business people over the past three years about this topic. They shared their mistakes and advice in Tough Talks in Tough Times: What Bosses Need to Know to Deliver Bad News, Motivate Employees & Stay Sane.

The Biggest Mistake: Procrastination
Natalie Wilson, president of Campus Classics, a 20-year-old American business specialising in custom-embroidered and silk-screened apparel, faced the inevitable conversation about layoffs with trepidation. Sales in December, the most lucrative time in her business, were not as high as anticipated. She needed to make cuts in her workforce to account for the loss in revenue. “It was one of the worst things I’ve had to do as co-owner of this company,” says Wilson. “I value my employees. This was extremely hard and agonizing.”

“The first difficult conversation I had to have was with myself,” Wilson adds. “I needed to come to grips with the fact that the financial results were not changing. The news was bad. As much as I cared for the workers, my responsibility was to ensure the financial integrity of the company as a whole.” Wilson, like many other business owners and managers, put off announcing the news. She waited two long weeks after she made her decision. “A mistake,” she says.

The delay in announcing the news didn’t make her task any easier. Her procrastination resulted in sleepless nights, heart palpitations, headaches and nausea.

Survival Advice: Process your Pain
One issue often overlooked is the long-term psychological impact on the person who delivers bad news. It takes a toll on everyone, not just the recipient. Dr. Maria Pozo Humphreys, a psychologist with international clientele, advises bosses to seek support during and after major changes at work. A trusted friend, colleague, or spouse can provide a non-judgmental sounding board.

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Jean Palmer Heck

Jean Palmer Heck is an international communications advisor, author and speaker who has spent 30 years working with worldwide newsmakers and senior executives from 33 countries. As a consultant for numerous corporations, including Eli Lilly, Verizon, and Praxair, Heck has spoken to hundreds of audiences and trains all levels of management. Heck is the author of The Tough Talks™ Series, available at


HR Matters Magazine
Issue 17 | January 2012

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