Delivering Bad News in the Digital Age

Guest post by Chris Birk

Conveying bad news is both art and science. It’s also an eventuality for those in leadership positions, especially in the ever-shifting and hyper-competitive world of entrepreneurship and business.
Economic volatility over the last 18 months has made delivering bad news to employees and colleagues a more frequent occurrence. Business leaders and executives are increasingly finding themselves explaining layoffs, pay cuts or a cessation of retirement benefits — not to mention the standard fare of employee reviews and evaluations.
Effective communication is a prerequisite for solid leadership. But it’s still worth stating the obvious — your job as a leader is to communicate concisely, directly and in a way that removes prejudgment from the equation.
But technological and social media advances over the last couple of years have added an interesting wrinkle to the process. Today, we’re more apt to text or instant message a colleague than pick up the phone or walk across the building to interact directly.
Business leaders also need to keep an eye on online reputation management, or ORM, and the impacts that delivering bad news can levy on blogs, social networking engines and the Internet at large.

Five Tips

Here are five tips for helping leaders deliver bad news in the digital age:

Focus on the Face-to-Face

The instant, faceless nature of communication has made the electronic dismissal or evaluation discussion much more appealing recently. Only about a third of companies use face-to-face meetings to deliver tough news to employees, according to a 2006 study by the International Association of Business Communicators.
Leaders and executives shouldn’t hide behind technology. Delivering bad news in person is inherently more professional and ethical than firing off a stock email or sending an in-office memo. Intently listening, thoughtfully answering questions and even encouraging emotion are all key elements of the process — and they can’t be done effectively via webcam.

Listen and Learn

Instead of running into the room guns blazing, give your employee a chance to talk about their performance, their professional trajectory or whatever else might be on their mind. Here, open-ended questions are your friends. Even if it’s simply: “How are you today and what’s happening in your life?”
To start by asking questions and listening is to take a step toward building open and honest communication at a crucial time.

Check Your Emotions

Let them let it out.
Digesting difficult news often triggers a wave of emotion. It’s here that empathy is most important. Don’t rush to move past the recipient’s emotional reaction. Instead, recognize and legitimize it.
At the same time, you can’t issue empty apologies or look for ways to recant the bad news you’ve issued. Tears and red eyes can’t make up for sustained poor performance. Nor should you use their emotional response as a springboard to releasing your own emotions. As a leader, it’s up to you to remain empathetic yet focused on moving forward.

Keep Moving

Giving people time to acknowledge their emotions is important, but that doesn’t mean you should linger or help facilitate a substantial discussion or emotional release. Ending on a positive note or the first steps toward transition can help lay the foundation for adaptability.
Explain clearly to your employees or colleagues how you plan to address the rough financial road on the horizon. Make sure there’s a clear understanding of how expectations or job duties are poised to change.

Prepare for ORM

This is another new wrinkle of the digital age. Companies and business leaders increasingly have to stay on top of online reputation management, or ORM, in today’s environment of instant communication and anonymous interaction.
Delivering bad news, whether it’s terminating an individual employee or addressing your staff about a rough road ahead, can easily bleed into online forums, blog posts and customer review sites.
Make sure you have an online marketing plan in place to combat the potential impacts of an irate ex-employee and his or her cohorts. Issuing positive press releases, acquiring web domains that could negatively impact your brand and keeping a close eye on Google Suggest terms are among the most proactive steps you can take.
About the Author: Chris Birk works with, a unique firm that provides angel investment and online marketing expertise to emerging companies. A former newspaper and magazine writer, he teaches journalism and media writing at a private Midwestern university. He disseminates good news for VA Mortgage and blogs at Write Short Live Long.

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