Workplace Doctor: Always awkward to bear the bad news

My company is undergoing a restructure and five key management positions are going to go – a directive from the parent company in the United States. As the person tasked with delivering the news to the affected personnel – something I have never done before – are there any tips you can offer to make the process as smooth as possible? MN, Dubai

Delivering information of this nature is always tough, especially when the message you are tasked with passing on has significant and long-term consequences. It is never pleasant for anyone involved, and your task is the trickiest, leaving you feeling both responsible and helpless, as you deliver messages for a “higher power”. You must feel trapped by this, almost as if you are being forced to communicate on behalf of aliens; sharing some terrible news for the fate of Planet Earth.

Even if it is your first experience of this type of conversation, remember that most corporate restructures have their unfortunate victims, as well as the unlucky ones like you who have to deliver the bad news. Although you have found yourself on a rough road, if handled sensitively, fairly and openly, you may find that it is less difficult than you anticipate. If you can be a support to those affected they are far more likely to appreciate your position.

There are a number of things that can make this process feel more humane. Firstly, promote transparency and share the information you have received. If you feel you have not done much yet to communicate key messages, make the time to do so. It is not just those who will leave the organisation you need to be mindful of, but also those left behind – especially as some may have been mentored by those exiting and could find it equally as upsetting. If not managed well, you will find yourself surrounded by critics and cynics, so make sure you take this into account: don’t be lumbered with the blame for decisions that aren’t your own.

Communicating broadly about the restructure is crucial, yet it is also important to make the time to speak to each person individually as a human being rather than just addressing the five management positions affected. Make sure you use what you already know about each person to adapt your style, and be consistent in the way you deliver the message. Prepare yourself to explain the reasoning behind the decision in a way which is professional without being cold.

Be aware that you cannot predict how someone will take the news that they are being let go: some employees can appear emotionless, while others may cry or become aggressive. When you sit down with someone to let them know they are losing their job, be mindful of what you say and truly empathise – imagine how you would feel if you were on the other side of the table. Just having a tissue or a kind word ready will let them know you care. Be personal in your approach but do not make it personal, or take what they say in response personally. Make sure someone else in management knows you are meeting that person, and maybe have another neutral management employee sit in the room to provide support for both of you.

As well as timely communication and understanding, make sure you do not let these colleagues leave empty-handed. Do your homework and provide them with information on employee assistance, support and guidance, but also connect them with opportunities – perhaps even leveraging your own connections. These could be people within your own network: if your company cannot keep them any more they could add value somewhere else. If you can sensitively contribute ideas, it may help the wounds heal more quickly.

Doctor’s prescription:

Someone is always tasked with delivering the bad news and unfortunately it is rare for it to be those responsible for the decision in the first place. However, if we are tasked with having these types of conversations, we can act in a way that keeps our own reputation and the dignity of those involved intact. Communication and sensitivity are key: if people feel like they are being treated as removable parts in a machine, add the human element back in by working with them to think about future options and open up your network.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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