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How to communicate bad news

Unfortunately, internal comms is not always about promoting benefits and flexible working options or announcing exciting staff conferences or work events. If internal communications are to be truly honest and transparent (and they really should be!), then there will be occasions when the news, updates, or information that need cascading will not make for such joyful reading.


For example, it was reported only a fortnight ago that UK workers should expect less generous salary settlements in 2024. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has reported that employers are reining in hiring plans and pay rises, with many “pencilling in the most meagre pay rises since the pandemic”. Similarly, plans to expand workforces have fallen.


This shouldn’t be a huge surprise after a period of very high inflation and, in many cases, pay rises given to (nearly) match, all whilst productivity and economic growth remained flat.


“Employer attention is shifting from helping staff weather the cost of living crisis to focus on business sustainability and growth, which will impact headcount in some places.”

-  Jon Boys, senior labour market economist for the CIPD


So, how should internal comms be approached when the news isn’t great?


Be straight with your people


If tough decisions regarding pay, benefits, or staffing levels are being made, it’s vitally important that employees understand the reasons behind them. Our people want and deserve the truth, and this is not the time to sugar-coat or selectively edit the facts. Any blanks you leave in the narrative will be filled by conspiracy theories half-truths, and dangerous exaggerations, all courtesy of the rumour mill. Ambiguous, inconsistent, or opaque comms at this stage could drive an already anxious workforce to the edge, potentially resulting in a mass exodus of your finest talent.


For this reason, larger organisations may even want to consider a bespoke internal comms strategy for their comms around such unwelcome news or significant changes.

Show empathy and understanding


If you are having to make redundancies, acknowledge the impact that they may have on those who remain, and offer support and resources wherever possible to help them cope with the changes. After all, this isn’t just about people losing friends and valued colleagues, it’s about potentially increased workloads, colleagues having to learn new skills and take on extra responsibilities, and possibly having to adjust to new reporting structures.


These can all be unsettling, and it pays to recognise that in a sympathetic and supportive fashion. Make efforts to visibly demonstrate that empathy from the very top of the organisation to mitigate any harmful “them and us” divides from developing or widening. Utilise sincere and heartfelt messages from senior leaders to explain that they understand concerns, share sadness at the losses, and to offer reassurance about what’s to come. In these circumstances, video messages definitely outdo the written word, with tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language delivering empathy and authenticity that words on a page or screen cannot.


The same goes for unwelcome news about pay and rewards. As well as explaining the reasons behind the decisions and offering some reassurance about future restorative plans, leaders should show that they understand the news may be disappointing. If pay is frozen (or raises limited) across the board, then explain that everyone is making the same sacrifice in the name of securing brighter days ahead.


This is the time to acknowledge that things will be different, and to understand that this can be unsettling. Recognise and appreciate employees’ efforts to accept and embrace the change.


Maintain the comms


If necessary, host follow-up town halls or meetings that give people the opportunity to ask questions, air their concerns or seek further reassurances. You could also employ an interactive digital platform that facilitates Q&A opportunities, and then share recurring themes or questions across the wider organisation.


It’s often difficult to remove the element of surprise that comes with an unwelcome announcement, but we can minimise further (unpleasant) surprises by clearly explaining the plan moving forward and how we expect things to play out. Explain any next steps clearly and with a timeframe. If there are gaps and unknowns, be honest about this but give an idea of when you are hoping to fill these gaps.


If you have promised further updates, be sure to deliver on those. Then key is to show that you care, that you are listening and understanding, and that you are true to your word.


To conclude, the critical role of effective internal comms in delivering unwelcome news cannot be overstated. Establishing transparent, open channels of communication within an organisation fosters trust, empathy, and a shared understanding that is crucial when navigating challenging situations. By prioritising clear and timely comms, leaders can not only mitigate the impact of unwelcome news but also strengthen the resilience and unity of their teams.




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