AWWA Articles

The good news about delivering bad news

By Stuart Karasik, Ph.D.

Career Zone Stuart KarasikI have a good friend who is in upper management at a large utility. After 25 years as a supervisor and manager, he’s nearing retirement and considering job opportunities in other industries.

When I asked what he wanted to do next, I was surprised when he said he wasn’t interested in another job that involved managing employees. Much like a greeter at Wal-Mart, he said, he wanted to leave his duties and responsibilities at work when he left for the day.

As my friend has found, managing employees can sometimes be difficult and trying. You often must make tough decisions and deliver unwelcome news. You may not always agree with the decisions, but as a manager you must support and implement them. 

Research and common sense show that some strategies are more effective than others for having difficult conversations and communicating negative information. Employees would rather have their manager “get to the point” than beat around the bush or minimize the impacts of the decision.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when having a difficult conversation with your employees:
•    Prior to the conversation, think about what you need to communicate and how you should say it.
•    Anticipate the questions your employee or team may have and prepare your answers. There may be legal repercussions to your statements.
•    When you meet with your employee or team, provide simple and objective information. Say what you need to say upfront without going into excruciating detail or history.  
•    Don’t be emotional and insincere. Decisions have been made and cannot be changed.  
•    Show that you care in a professional manner. Put yourself in their shoes and treat them as you would prefer to be treated.
•    Stick to your message and talking points. Do not ramble on or make statements you may later regret.
•    Let everyone leave the meeting with their dignity and self-respect intact. This is a business decision, not personal one.

Delivering difficult news comes with the territory of managing employees. Very often they know the bad news is coming and they won’t be happy to hear it. To be most effective, share it in the best way possible by using these strategies.

Stuart Karasik spent most of his career in the human resources/personnel arena. He has a Ph.D. in education, a master’s in biology, and was the training program manager for the City of San Diego.

Note: The AWWA/WEF Transformative Issues Symposium on Workforce is being held Aug. 7-9 in Washington, D.C. The deadline to submit session content is March 25.