The art of breaking bad news

Published March 18, 2016 in the Sacramento Business Journal.

In this age of social media you’ve likely heard the phrase “content is king.” And whether it’s social media, or anything else, content matters.

We all can remember our parents saying “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But in business, a leader has to share not only the good news but the bad, too. It simply comes with the job.

So what happens when you don’t have something nice to say but have to say it anyway? Well, content may be king — but delivery and presentation may matter most.


Last month the air conditioning company Carrier announced that its Indianapolis plant would move to Mexico starting in 2017. An executive delivered the bad news to 1,400 employees. Let’s just say it did not go well.

An employee recorded a smartphone video of the meeting, and it went viral. And not in a good way. Why? It was the combination of unrefined messaging and poorly orchestrated delivery.

The executive stood in front of more than 1,000 people and basically told them that he wants them to continue to stay focused on doing great work and producing high-quality products while preparing to have their jobs sent to Mexico.

He’s already lost the crowd. All these men and women are thinking about right now is that they have kids, mortgages and financial obligations that they will no longer be able to meet.

He continues with, “I want to be clear, this is strictly a business decision.” Can you feel the emotion? The caring? The personal connection? No, and neither can the crowd.

Whether you run a big company like Carrier or a small business, if you have bad news to share, start with these three steps.

TWEET THIS: 3 tips for breaking bad news via @sacbiz from @MerlotMarketing CEO @DebiHammond: #MarketingBlog

Deliver the news in small groups
When you have bad news that will affect the lives and livelihoods of your employees, don’t share it in a large group. Break the employees up into small, intimate groups, and instead of giving a speech, have a meaningful conversation with them. Give them an opportunity to respond and ask questions in a more comfortable, intimate setting.

A good rule of thumb to remember is this: If you need a microphone, the crowd is too big.

Say you care
This may sound rudimentary or too touchy-feely for you, but saying you care goes a long way. If the Carrier executive had provided any hint at all that he truly cared about the people with whom he was speaking, the response might have been significantly different.

Show you care
It’s one thing to say it, but you also need to show it. Will the company provide substantial severance packages or job training? If you truly care, show it.

The next time you have bad news to share with your employees, think of how you would be perceived if someone took out a camera and recorded you. Even bad news can come off reasonably well when done right. Content matters — but who delivers it and how will determine the success of the effort.

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