Doors are shut. Quiet conversations cease when someone comes near. Then the suspense is over: you get the call — come meet with the management team; an announcement is near.

When bad news comes knocking at your door, whether the news is layoffs, your company’s been sold, or benefits are being cut, you already know what the next few weeks are going to be like — grinding, stressful, busy and just plain no fun.

A good chunk of your plan is business as usual. Bring the team together, sign non-disclosure agreements, craft the key messages, segment your audiences, identify your stakeholders and nail down a tight schedule.

But breaking the news to employees? That’s never business as usual.

Because no matter how good your plan is, if you can’t manage the employee reaction, you’re not going to succeed.

Managing management

But before we even get to employees, let’s talk about a couple of pitfalls to avoid with senior management.

Pitfall #1: Senior management underestimates the time it takes to absorb the information.

This group has been talking about and planning for the change for weeks, if not months. While there may be full appreciation of the shock employees will experience, they may underestimate how hard it is for employees to grasp the facts. Result? Impatience with employees asking a lot of questions. And that impatience will come off as management not caring about employees.

Pitfall #2: Senior management has unrealistic expectations for a successful rollout.

No one ever thanks you for changing the game on them. While senior management may see some positives in the changes that are coming, employees likely will see none — they’ll just see takeaways.

Never has this been more brilliantly portrayed than in the original British series, “The Office.” David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, has an announcement to make:

“The Office: Judgement (#1.6)” (2001)

David Brent: Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that Neil will be taking over both branches, and some of you will lose your jobs. Those of you who are kept on will have to relocate to Swindon, if you wanna stay. I know, gutting. On a more positive note, the good news is, I’ve been promoted, so … every cloud. (sobs of workers fill the room) You’re still thinking about the bad news aren’t you?

Part of our job is to prepare senior management for employee reactions — let them know what to expect. Helping them to understand that a successful outcome may simply be that employees accept the change and move on will make your job much easier and less stressful.

Managing your communicators

Sad news. You are not the most influential communicator during tough times. Nor is your team. Nor is your CEO. Nope, the most influential communicators are your supervisors, managers and human resources staff. These are the folks who are going to be hit with all the questions, and these are the folks who will shape the reaction of employees by how they react.

So we need to help them help us. Here’s how.

Human resources

HR plays an important role in any change the organization goes through. While these folks are pros at handling tough situations, even they get nervous about dealing with angry, confused employees.

One approach that works well is to invest in training of the HR team — and to do so in stages, tying the training to anticipated employee reaction. For example, let’s say you’re announcing outsourcing, resulting in layoffs.

The employee reaction curve looks something like this:


You can help soften that reaction by providing tools and training at critical points. For example, prepare HR before the announcement goes out. Then have HR prepare managers, who are on the frontline with employees. When details are ready, have HR and managers prepared again, ready to answer questions and manage reactions.

Why wouldn’t you want to do this?

OK, there’s a risk that word may get out. So have HR sign non disclosure agreements and then train them properly. Give managers a heads-up but do it just the day before the announcement. This will limit the rumor mill.

If your organization is publically traded and you’re announcing a material change (one that could affect the price of your stock), you can’t tell anyone before you announce it externally. That may mean that without non disclosure agreements, you must stay silent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t immediately get support material out to your managers when the announcement is made.

Tools and training

Few people are as motivated to learn as those who know they’ll have to answer questions and explain an unpopular decision to a bunch of anxious and angry employees. Take advantage of this and put together a powerful training session to help them cope.

A good training session should:

  • Provide a clear, concise description of the planned change — explained in a conversational, straightforward manner. This must be jargon-free zone.
  • Train participants on how to handle difficult questions.
  • Provide practical tips that are easy to remember and follow.
  • Create a list of those tough questions (best practice: have the participants brainstorm the list of questions that scare them the most) and then, as a group, brainstorm the answer.
  • If formal employee meetings are in the plan, role-play the meeting for them. Ask them to act like their employees will, and ask you difficult, emotional questions so they can see how you’d handle them.
  • At the end of the role-play, ask for a critique on how you did — how did they feel, did they believe you, what was their reaction?

A good toolkit should include:

  • No more than five key messages
  • Speaking points
  • FAQs
  • A meeting kit, if holding formal meetings (versus more informal Q&A sessions), is a requirement

Setting expectations

HR and managers need to know what you expect of them — and what you don’t expect of them. For example:

It’s not their job to make employees happy about the change.

It is their job to let employees know the facts so employees can make up their own minds.

It’s not their job to know every detail of the change.

It is their job to know why the change, what the change is on a high level, and what will happen as a result of the change — these should be contained in your five key messages.

It’s not their job to answer every question on the change.

It is their job to handle questions in a calm, professional and objective fashion, not adding fuel to the fire. And not knowing the answer is perfectly acceptable — “I don’t know” is an honest answer.

Image stays

In the end, how articulate managers and HR are at answering questions is not as important as how they interact with employees. We tend to forget words but remember image — confidence, aggressiveness, sympathy, impatience all shape our impressions.

Helping our communicators help us means making them into ambassadors who empathize, listen and try their best to answer questions.

There’s more. Much more. So next month, we’ll discuss specific training methods to help make this whole job much easier on your managers and HR — and on you.

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