Delivering Bad News to Employees

July 17, 2020

With the pandemic disrupting businesses across the globe, many organizations are restructuring, contemplating furloughs and layoffs, or implementing pay cuts and hiring freezes as they seek to navigate new economic realities and an uncertain future.

How a company chooses to deliver difficult news to employees can impact attraction and retention of talent for years to come — we have all seen the negative publicity surrounding companies who recently communicated layoffs via an impersonal email or a large-scale Zoom call. As you design your communication strategy for upcoming organizational changes, use the following litmus test to ensure that employees feel informed, respected and honored throughout the process.

A Litmus Test for Delivering Difficult Organizational News

Have you considered how you want employees to talk with friends and family about their experience? When employees hear about an organizational change that will negatively impact them or their colleagues, what do you want them to think, feel and say as a result? Is the tone and the manner in which the news is delivered consistent with the basic tenets of your company’s core values? If there is a disconnect, leaders — and communicators — risk losing credibility that may take years to regain.

Have you addressed the most pressing questions on employees’ minds? When communicating difficult news, be sure to provide everything that employees need in order to feel they are being treated fairly, respectfully and compassionately.

  • Why is this happening? Full transparency is essential. Establish the “big picture view” and spend time explaining the considerations that factored into the decisions. Employees need to understand the steps that were taken and have confidence in the decision-making process.
  • Why me? Upon hearing difficult news, human beings immediately feel a loss of control. It is important for employees to understand that the decision is not about them or their performance (unless it is a performance-based decision), but rather is about a specific point in time relative to the company’s financial performance and expectations for the future. Be honest and concise with your answers.
  • Am I valued? This is an unspoken question that impacted employees will have — if not immediately, then certainly later in the process. Let them know that they and their contributions matter.
  • When will the current situation end? It’s impossible to predict the future, and now is not the time to raise false hopes that a furlough, pay cut or hiring freeze will end soon, or to speculate on when laid-off employees can reapply for a position within the company. Reiterate that all actions are taken with a long-term view of recovery for the company. It may not be the answer an employee wants to hear in the moment, but the integrity you demonstrate now will be remembered long after.
  • What happens next? Make it easy for people to understand what will happen next, what resources will be available, any actions they need to take and important deadlines. Have the information packaged in an email and on a website, clearly stated and simply organized so it’s easy for them to digest and find what they’re looking for.

Have you prepared managers in advance? According to the 2019 ROI Benchmark Report, people managers are the most credible source of information for employees, and ideally they should be the ones to deliver difficult news to their team members. Prep managers so they can fulfill this critical role. Schedule confidential briefing sessions prior to the announcement so managers have an opportunity to absorb why the action is being taken, the announcement timeline and their role in delivering the news. Equip managers with key facts, talking points and FAQs, and ensure they have time to review the information and ask questions before they need to take action.

Are you set up to deliver the news in a respectful and compassionate manner? Delivering difficult news is always best in person. However, with remote working due to COVID-19, this is often not feasible. Prep leaders to deliver the news virtually while still providing a personal approach.

  • Whenever possible, deliver the news in a 1:1 setting versus large group meetings. If this is not possible due to the number of employees impacted, announce the changes in a large group setting but immediately follow up with small breakout sessions to allow for dialogue and questions.
  • Ensure leaders arrive early for the call.
  • Leaders should also plan to block off extra time after the meeting in case the conversation runs long.
  • After delivering the news, leaders should take their cue from the employee. If the employee wants to talk, listen. If the employee needs time to process the news, offer to schedule time to talk again.
  • Be prepared for a range of emotions, including anger and tears. Let the employee vent. It is very important they feel heard and supported.

Where to turn for help

Know that the ROI team is here to help you effectively deliver difficult organizational news while ensuring that impacted employees feel informed, valued and respected throughout the process. Here are just a few examples of how we can support you:

  • Communication planning for layoffs and org restructurings
  • Message development for difficult news
  • Manager briefings and toolkits
  • Communication measurement and dashboards to track employee sentiment and engagement


Claire Berney ROI Internal Communication Agency Employee.
Claire Berney

Senior Vice President

A lifelong music lover and collector of more than 7,000 CDs, Claire has decades of experience in corporate internal communications and public relations, having led teams at some of the largest organizations in tech. She serves on ROI’s leadership team.

Interested in learning how to deliver news in a respectful and compassionate manner?

Manager and leader development through The Enlightened Workplace Project online course, that gives an insightful look at what truly drives and sustains employee engagement and high-performing teams that result in business success.