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How To Deliver Bad News With Dignity

Picture of Faith Chukwuka

Faith Chukwuka

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Having to initiate difficult conversations is one of the most challenging situations you can face at work. For others, it comes way too easy and is done ruthlessly. This can range from informing your employee that their performance is poor to terminating them. In general HR practitioners or bosses are tasked with delivering bad news and in the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the instances of delivering bad news.

Despite the pandemic and all other factors that lead to dismissals or disciplinary action, there is a good and bad way this can be done.

Delivering bad news with grace and compassion is an essential skill for any leader or manager. 

We want to ensure that you know the best way to do so, to ensure that both you and your employees or former employees can maintain dignity.

“Be calm, present, and as compassionate as you can possibly be.” (Molinsky 2018) The way you prepare for and approach these conversations is imperative to get your delivery right. Approach the conversation with empathy by keeping your emotions in check. “If you must give bad news that is very hard for people to accept, you need to be ready for misinterpretation and resistance.” (Weeks, 2021)

As the speaker, you must mind your tone from the moment the listener enters the room or call as it lays the foundation for the kind of conversation that is about to take place. Also be mindful of where you choose to have the conversation, somewhere private and comfortable is always best.

Remind yourself why it is necessary 

Most people dislike being the bearer of bad news but doing so will be easier if you feel justified in doing it. Before you must do so, try to remind yourself why it is necessary. 

If it wasn’t your decision to discipline or terminate, try to find out why the decision was made, the rationale behind it and what other possibilities were considered. You want to be able to approach the situation with a clear understanding of why what you are about to do is necessary, fair and legitimate. 

Disciplinary Action

Many people hate the idea of having to reprimand employees, however, it is an essential role that helps a company stay in line with its values and objectives. You too may find the process very uncomfortable or perhaps you find it easy.

One key aspect of maintaining dignity is to have empathy. Empathy at work is necessary when things are going wrong. The best HR managers know how to handle disciplinary actions fairly and kindly, allowing the company to maintain a positive culture. 

It is not what you say but how you say it! An employee making a mistake can be costly and affect the productivity of the company. There is no way for you to avoid or ignore it, but you can handle it reasonably. 

Start by acknowledging that you know that they wanted a better outcome on the task and so did you. Then mention the fact that they did make a mistake and that it had an impact and go on to state the outcome. 

Explain that it creates a problem for you as their boss and then lead to the consequences by saying “unfortunately”. Follow up by offering support where possible to help them overcome it and improve their performance and ask how you can do so.

Practice Fair Termination Policies 

Like hiring, firing is also a critical process that takes determination to get right. There is a right and wrong way for you to terminate an employee. If you get this process wrong, and your former employees feel dishonoured it can negatively affect the company’s reputation and wallet. 

If you practice unfair termination your current employees will distrust you and it will affect their performance, it will also make potential employees weary of working for you. 

The most important part of termination policies is to give employees a chance to rectify their behaviour. This can be done by having a three-strike policy, where three warnings will be issued before termination or outlining actions that will result in direct termination. You can also co-create a performance improvement plan with your employee. 

If their performance is still lacking after having been previously disciplined and you are considering terminating them, this should be expressed as well. This way, should you have to terminate it would not come as a shock and they wouldn’t feel blindsided. They will also recognize that they were afforded a fair chance to improve their performance and your honesty and transparency will be appreciated. 

If the decision is taken to terminate do not negotiate, this shows poor reasoning skills and uncertainty which can create a lack of respect should the relationship continue.

They will understand that they were given a fair chance to improve their performance, and they’ll appreciate the transparency and honesty. “Creating a fair, transparent termination process is a fundamental best practice that should be reviewed and considered in every company.” (EddyHR Staff 2020)

Keep your personal biases in check

Having to deliver bad news your personal biases or weaknesses can be seen in the process, so it is very personal. You may find it difficult to discipline or terminate someone you like or with whom you share similarities. However, when you don’t like someone or have nothing in common with them or have been pressured, it tests your ability to exercise fairness and act in a dignified manner. 

In these instances, you need to find something that both you and the employee can agree on and then build from there; into delivering the bad news. It is also important to do some introspection so that you become aware of what those biases are and address them prior so that they do not rear their heads when deciding to and resultantly having to deliver the news.

If you often find that employees you discipline or terminate all have a common characteristic or characteristics, perhaps there might be some bias involved; pay special attention to this.

Conclusively, if you find that employees you discipline or terminate surprised, then you are getting it wrong. Have you ever had to discipline or terminate an employee? Were you able to do so with dignity?

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