Advice for Conveying Good or Bad News to Employees

Organizational change can be disorienting and disruptive. Announcing change to employees is the job of the CEO who can put the change into context, align it with organizational vision, point to a constructive way forward and provide a human touch. The key is treating employees with respect as the greatest asset of the company.

Organizational change can be disorienting and disruptive. Announcing change to employees is the job of the CEO who can put the change into context, align it with organizational vision, point to a constructive way forward and provide a human touch. The key is treating employees with respect as the greatest asset of the company.

Announcing internal change, especially if it involves layoffs, can be a nerve-wracking communication challenge. It is so nerve-wracking, in fact, that many faint-hearted CEOs are conveniently absent, delegating the unpleasant chore to underlings.

As a general rule, bad news should be the business of the CEO. Only he or she can put the bad news into some understandable context, align it with the organization’s vision for the future and point to a constructive way forward. 

The constructive way forward isn’t just for the employees who will lose their jobs; it’s also for the employees who will remain. How well that pathway is laid out will influence the morale of the continuing workforce.

Layoffs aren’t the only internal communication challenge. Any kind of change – from a modified health insurance plan to a new owner – can create anxiety among employees. The change doesn’t have to be galactic – for example, removing soft drinks from the lunch room vending machine – to generate an employee reaction. 

Executives who carefully render financial, operational, sales and logistical plans too often treat internal communications in a slapdash fashion, with little forethought and haphazard execution. Sometimes “planning” boils down to assigning someone other than the CEO to be the hapless messenger. Flak jackets aren’t provided for the fall guys and gals. 

This is a huge oversight considering employees can be the most influential ambassadors for a company, nonprofit, public agency or brand. If you think of employees as strategic partners, which they are, you should conclude they deserve thoughtful, plainspoken and truthful communications, whether it is good news or bad news.

Elizabeth Baskin, an internal communications specialist writing for, offers useful suggestions of how to think strategically about internal communications. That begins, she says, with giving employees more than a superficial whitewash of what’s occurring.

Baskin believes internal communications should pivot on organizational vision, starting with making sure employees know what the vision is. “That vision can help anchor employees in times of change and reassure them that the change is part of a larger strategic plan,” she says. 

Any kind of change can cause jitters, so relating changes – big or small, bad or good – to an organizational vision can be stabilizing. Employees can see the change in the context of a bigger picture. It may not make a pink slip any easier to swallow, but it can give an employee a sense of why the pink slip was necessary. For employees who will bear a heavier workload, it can be reassuring. 

When the news is bad, internal communications needs an empathetic tone and personal. Think of it as talking to members of the business family. “Don’t sugarcoat it nor spin it nor put off communicating the news,” Baskin advises. “National research indicates that employees want to know as soon as possible – especially if it’s bad news.”

It is naïve to expect bad news can be contained. Expect the opposite – that the details of the bad news will be shared on email and social media even as you are sharing it with employees. Don’t get outraged; be prepared to answer media inquiries.

Communicating change to organizations with far-flung operations and multiple offices is especially challenging. Teleconferencing provides an avenue for the CEO to deliver the news to everyone at the same time. It’s worth solving whatever logistical challenges may exist to pull this off successfully.

Baskin’s final piece of advice is to humanize your messages, whether good or bad. “Communicating the nuts and bolts of the change is important, but we must also link it to human outcomes.”

Change is disorienting. CEOs usually have to approve it. They also should be the ones who share the news of it to employees. If they believe employees are their organization’s greatest assets, they should treat them like great assets.


Why Media Training Matters

Preparation is the key to successfully responding to the media during a crisis.

Preparation is the key to successfully responding to the media during a crisis.

You are standing in front of a bank of microphones and wall of TV cameras. Your words and how you express them will influence how the public, elected officials and employees view your organization. A lot is riding on your performance.

Even though the stakes are large, many spokespersons wing it. They enter the pit without any training and often without a realistic appreciation of the chaos they will encounter. They are entering the lion's den as bait.

Media training is intended to prepare spokespersons — and their bosses — to deal with the news media, cope with the pressures of social and digital media and manage the flow of information to a variety of external and internal audiences.

If crises are opportunities to demonstrate an organization's core values and enhance their reputation, then preparation and continuous practice are essential. Here is what media training should cover:

  • Building rapport with reporters. Spokespersons should understand the news media's role and how they do their job. Respecting deadlines, providing information in a timely manner and avoiding spin are ways that spokespersons build a positive relationship with reporters so they work with you instead of looking for ways to go around you. 
  • Understanding the value of sound bites. Reporters want facts. They also want great quotes. Spokespersons need to deliver both. An interview clip on a TV broadcast frequently lasts 10 seconds, which means there isn't time to offer a lengthy explanation. You need a short, quotable sentence or phrase that conveys your key message. This takes art, but mostly it takes the hard work to identify the most important fact and convert into a sound bite.
  • Knowing when not to take the bait. Good reporters have techniques to get you off message. Spokespersons must learn the skills to stay on message. They have to become like actors who perform their lines on cue without getting sidetracked by someone coughing loudly in the audience. Spokespersons also need to know how to redirect a reporter's question to stay on message.
  • Projecting the right emotion. The last thing you want is a spokesperson who smirks while describing a layoff. How you look when you speak speaks louder than what you actually say. Media training, which involves simulated interviews on camera, helps spokespersons see their posture, facial expressions and hand motions, which can reinforce the key message or distract from it.
  • Conveying confidence. It takes skill for a spokesperson to convey confidence in the midst of chaos. Media training provides tips on how to maintain composure and project a command of the facts, even if they are incomplete when you brief reporters. Confidence is critical to give key audiences — whether it's an adjoining neighborhood or an organization's own employees — reassurance that the problem causing the crisis is being addressed with their safety in mind.
  • Performing under stress. It's one thing to talk a good game and another to play one. Media training puts spokespersons under the lens of a camera so you can see how well you handle a question out of left field or new information that is shown to you without prior warning on a smartphone. Stress-testing spokespersons give them a taste of what a real crisis would be like. It separates the wannabes from the can-do spokespersons.

Effective media training isn't like a lifetime vaccine. You need to undergo it more than once. Experienced spokespersons routinely tune up before a known major event or periodically just to keep their skills at the sharpest edge.

Managing the Layoff Notice

The announcement by Microsoft this week of massive layoffs brought to mind my own experience at Tektronix when it began paring employees, signaling the start of its downward drift as a major employer. 

Laying off employees — whether it's one or thousands — is no fun. Communicating the layoffs is no fun either, but there are ways to make it less painful — for those losing their jobs and those staying. 

Painful Lesson #1

Let employees and other internal stakeholders (key vendors, consultants, strategic partners) know about layoffs before the general public. Nobody likes to get the news about a layoff their could affect them in a newspaper.

There are always logistical, timing and legal considerations that go into how and when a layoff is announced. But here is the painful truth — there is always, always a negative, sometimes permanent reaction when the layoff announcement is made public before it is made personally. 

Employees are not dumb. They know when layoffs are looming. They may even understand why they are necessary for the greater good of the company or organization. What they can't forget — or maybe forgive — is being the last to know.