How to break difficult news to employees

Not all decisions are considered favourable by employees, and conveying such decisions can be rather challenging. How does HR handle it?

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Companies often have to make difficult decisions. It’s not just announcing layoffs or salary cuts, but a policy change in the company related to performance management, promotions, evaluation process and the parameters. The reasons could be strategic, but employees often do not take such decisions in the right spirit. In manufacturing sectors, at the shopfloor, things can even turn violent with the workers prone to aggression.

Now the responsibility to communicate these decisions to the workforce falls on the HR. It is the HR that is expected to step up and bear the brunt, and it’s HR’s job to take the employees into confidence and implement the same.

“In my tenure, I never allowed the HR to go and deliver such decisions to employees alone. The immediate manager has to be involved”

Ramesh Shankar S, former CHRO, Siemens, and HR consultant

How can HR prepare to hold tough conversations with employees?

A survey revealed that 37 per cent or a third of the managers found it difficult to have conversations with employees where they knew the employees would not like the decision and would definitely retaliate.

Some organisations communicate such sensitive decisions by simply sending across a mail without really engaging in a real-time conversation. Such methods generally lead to major uproars within the company.

Pia Shome, chief people officer, U Gro Capital, shares with HRKatha that she has found herself in such situations multiple times in her career. There are a few things that she practices as an HR professional to convey such messages and also handle the retaliation of the employees.

“One needs a high level of EQ or emotional quotient to sail through difficult conversations”

Sushil Baveja, executive director -HR, DCM Shriram

First is overcommunication of the change in the policies and why it is being done. Using town hall meetings, memos or any communication medium, one should keep communicating the message as much as possible, stating the reason why it is being done. This way, the message will seep into the minds of the employees. Second is, taking out that extra time and going that extra mile to explain to the employees why the changes are being done on a one-to-one basis and understand their concerns. After understanding where the hitch is, one needs to solve the problem for them.

Shome enunciates with an example of a change in the reporting time. Some employees will definitely have a problem with this change, and someone may say that the change is making it impossible for them to drop their children to school. However, the decision cannot be changed just for a few employees. Therefore, HR will have to make an exception for such employees. The key is to understand where the hitch is and solve the problem.

“The problem lies in the way each employee sees a change in the company, through their individual lenses, failing to understand the strategic importance behind the change. So, our job as HR is to make them understand and implement the changed processes,” shares Shome.

“One cannot rush the conversation. One needs to keep some data or numbers ready to lay the foundation for the talk. It helps to set the whole context”

Pranav Prasoon Thakur, head-HR, Renault India

“Also, as HR, we need to first believe that whatever we are going to convey is right and internalise the decision. If we ourselves are not convinced, how will we convince others? Therefore, we need to go into the depth of the subject and reply to all queries or retaliation with empathy,” adds Shome

All difficult or unpleasant conversations need to be handled in a very mature way. “One needs a high level of EQ or emotional quotient to sail through such conversations,” opines Sushil Baveja, executive director -HR, DCM Shriram.

Pranav Prasoon Thakur, head-HR, Renault India, believes that HR is the bridge between the management and the employees. It is the responsibility of the HR to prepare itself for such occasions, and communicate the decision by laying down the context to the whole conversation.

Communicating to someone that they would no longer be required in a company, is one of the most difficult and extreme steps which an HR person may have to take in their career. Thakur shares that he likes to prepare himself for such conversations. “One cannot rush the conversation. One needs to keep some data or numbers ready to lay the foundation for the talk. It helps to set the whole context,” explains Thakur. This approach makes it easy to also explain the ‘Why’ behind the whole decision.

After presenting the context properly, it is time to slowly and accurately come to the transactional part of the whole talk. We have to be clear about what we are saying. “After laying down the context, we will have to be compassionate while revealing the decision to the employee. There can be instances where the employee may ask for some considerations. Try to offer help at whatever level possible,” advises Thakur. Lastly, we need to close the loop, without ending the conversation abruptly, and by giving a clear direction or idea about the next step.

“The problem lies in the way each employee sees a change in the company, through their individual lenses, failing to understand the strategic importance behind the change. So, our job as HR is to make them understand and implement the changed processes”

Pia Shome, chief people officer, U Gro Capital

Thakur cautions that reactions are inevitable, and it is impossible to know how and from where they will come. However, such emotions need to be handled and controlled with compassion. One is supposed to listen to the employees and demonstrate understanding skills.

If the situation allows, Thakur also suggests spreading the whole process across timelines, provided there is the bandwidth to do so. This way, the uncomfortable decision will not feel like a bomb dropped on the employee. “If we have time, we can break the process into timelines, and give indications to the employee about what is to come,” shares Thakur.

Thakur shares that if one is having a one-to-one conversation with the employee, the best way to go about it is by first setting the environment right. Such conversations should be held where there is a room for venting out emotions.

“Emotional reactions need to be anticipated, and as HR one has to deal with them without disturbing the dignity of the other person,” adds Vivek Tripathi, VP-HR, Newgen Software.

According to Ramesh Shankar S, former CHRO, Siemens, and HR consultant, the responsibility of communicating such decisions should not rest solely on the HR. The bearer of bad news should not be the HR alone. The immediate manager of the employee should also be involved. “In my tenure, I never allowed the HR to go and deliver such decisions to employees alone. The immediate manager has to be involved,” opines Shankar.

“Emotional reactions need to be anticipated, and as HR one has to deal with them without disturbing the dignity of the other person”

Vivek Tripathi, VP-HR, Newgen Software

Shankar shares an instance where very senior managers, including a business head were sacked during one of his past stints. The decision came as a disciplinary action. Five senior managers were sacked because they misguided a customer, and the action was taken after an investigation. Though, in such cases, retaliation from sacked employees is not anticipated because they are at fault, others had to be explained why this was happening. After all, the sacked employees were all very senior managers with some reputation in the company. After sacking them, the company decided to communicate this to the rest of the employees as an example, through an internal newsletter. The communique detailed the incident, giving all the facts and the reason behind the action, setting an example of equity. Though the names of the people involved were not revealed, this helped the employees understand the reason behind the decision.

Not all decisions taken by the management are agreeable. Human resource leaders believe that, in such cases one should do it only if one has the courage to stand by the decision, or else quit. “Don’t compromise on principles and values because personal credibility is at stake,” advises Shankar.

Tripathi feels that it all depends on the level of disagreement one may have with the decision. “In case one disagrees, then it is upon one to decide whether one would want to stand by it or disassociate oneself from it, since the latter can also result in some repercussions,” points out Tripathi.

While having such conversations, it is important to show compassion and empathy. It is also essential to listen to the employees and understand their side of the story, before reaching closure. There cannot be any loose ends.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Mine is more than a comment, sharing my experience as Head HR for over 35 + years.
    I have faced such situations from conversing with employees on elevation/transfer to outstation location to terminating senior management staff .
    Of course among all the above, terminating after an investigation or providing an opportunity to resign instead getting terminated is the tough part.
    I had to employ my professional experience/maturity and charm in doing this. Always it would be in presence of the concerned reporting manager and one of my colleagues. Top management support for the action is an important aspect in such transactions.
    Prasad
    DGM – Corporate HR (Retd)
    Mico Bosch
    & HR/IR Consultant

  2. Communication is the hallmark of management. If we are not sounding witch hunting in our actions, one could always find a way to communicate difficult decisions. As its rightly pointed out,while having such conversations, it is important to show compassion and empathy. Further, it is also essential to listen to the employees and understand their side of the story, before reaching closure.

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