Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to Give Bad News

Tomorrow, I will sit down, one by one, with several members of my teaching staff and inform them that they will be getting a layoff notice next week.  I am not treasuring this experience -- it certainly is not why I became a school administrator.  These are the newest, most energetic, and in many cases most talented teachers in the school, who can least afford to lose their jobs because they make the least in the first place.  Because I've known for a while that I am likely to have to do this, I've given a lot of thought to how to do it right.  I know I'm not the only manager these days faced with this task, so I thought I'd share some basic rules to follow when you have to deliver bad news, no matter what that news is.
  1. Prepare and be prepared.  If the news is at all forseeable, share that it's a possibility before it becomes a reality.  We think we are doing people a favor by reassuring them that nothing bad will happen, but that's only true until something bad actually happens.  People need time to process bad news, and a little expectation goes a long way.  (For more on this, read my thoughts about preparing my staff for layoffs here.  

  2. It's not about you.  Very often, when you need to deliver bad news to someone else, you are also distressed by what has happened.  It's easy to fall into the trap of talking about how incredibly hard this is for you.  No matter how impacted you are yourself, however, when you deliver bad news that will seriously impact someone else, that interaction is about the other person, not you. 

    Here's a good example of what not to do:  I worked as an office temp just after high school, and my first assignment was cut short.  I was supposed to work for 6 weeks but they didn't need me after 4.  This was not a big deal to me, since it just meant the agency would send me somewhere else.  When the manager at the office where I was temping called me in to tell me, he began with, "This is probably the hardest job a manager has to do."  And then he waited and didn't say anything else.  I remember thinking that someone must have died, because I couldn't imagine what would be so awful that the manager couldn't bring himself to say it.  Had he delivered the news and waited for my reaction, we both could have saved a lot of stress.  Which brings us to our next rule . . .

  3. Let the reaction be your guide.  You may be able to guess at how someone will react, but people do all kinds of strange things in the face of bad news.  Be prepared for a colossal reaction or overreaction, but also for the possibility that they won't seem upset at all.  This is particularly true with kids, whose reactions often are not the same at all as the adults around them.  Thus, a kid who is heartbroken by the loss of a favorite piece of Lego can be completely unfazed by the death of a grandparent -- one is very real to him and one is not.

  4. Skip the platitudes and offer real help.  "Everything's going to be OK" sounds better in your head than it probably does to the person receiving the news.  On the other hand, if you can sincerely say, "I'm going to help you" or "I'm going to stay with you until you're OK" or the like, that's a measurable, observable piece of support.

  5. Be careful about leaving people alone.  People who are seriously upset can easily faint, crash their car or hurt themselves intentionally.  When in doubt, simply say, "I'm a little worried about leaving you alone.  Who can I call?  It will make me feel better."  In this instance, making it about you may be a good strategy.
Pink slips will, barring a miracle, be mailed next Thursday to my teachers and many others throughout the district.  On Friday, the day they will arrive in home mailboxes, my staff will gather for an all-pink-themed party (pink lemonade, pink jelly beans, strawberry smoothies, etc.)  I am offering rewards to anyone with enough guts to actually show up in a pink slip.  As much as I know that my teachers will not be surprised, because I've told them this is coming, I also know this is going to be hard on both those being pink-slipped and those not.  Offering good food, good humor, and good company is never a bad idea at these moments.  I know it's not enough, but it will have to do for now.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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