How to communicate difficult news without damaging employee culture

When your revenue is off the charts or you’re smashing your sales goals, it’s easy to tell employees. In contrast, many leaders dread difficult discussions because they fear that communicating bad news will adversely impact employee culture. Although it will never be simple, is there a better way to tell your employees something they don’t want to hear?

Communicating difficult news with an intranet

Communicating change during a year of challenge

To say 2020 was a year of change is likely an understatement. Strategies were redrawn, business models turned upside down, and decision makers were faced with a cultural challenge that was largely new to them. Leaders had to worry about more than just adapting to change; they also had to think about the best way to communicate major decisions that would touch many of their employees’ lives.

For the first time ever, some CEO's needed to reduce their headcounts, while others instated pay cuts and hiring freezes. With anxiety levels already running high as the global pandemic spiked, employees were suddenly faced with uncertainty about their employer’s future and their own job security.

The task of delivering bad news, particularly during a pandemic, is undoubtedly challenging. But while leaders might not have had much of a choice about furloughs or layoffs, they were in control of how it was communicated. The decisions they made, and the decisions leaders continue to make as they reassess their strategy, have the potential to profoundly impact their enterprise’s corporate culture.

The link between communications and employee culture

Culture is difficult to define and sometimes even harder to change. At its most basic level, it can be thought of as the way your organization gets things done. It’s often an unwritten code, something that is felt more than it is said, and it influences every experience and interaction that your employees have.

Regardless of how you choose to define it, there’s a universal truth about employee culture: it’s dynamic and ever-changing. Even if you cultivate a workplace environment that feels compelling and engaging, there’s always a chance that something will happen that will radically transform how you operate. More often than not, it’s how you communicate during these transitional moments that will have the most profound impact on your corporate culture.

From notes from the CEO to informal chats, every message your employees send and receive shapes your culture. This includes not only positive stories, but also the way you choose to communicate bad news. While it may be challenging, it is possible to have difficult discussions that don’t detract from the culture you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. Communicating bad news well brings about rare opportunities to cultivate a trust that can be an enduring source of employee engagement.

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Turning challenges into defining cultural moments

Sometimes your darkest hours will present you with the best opportunities for reinforcing your corporate culture. When Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky needed to communicate a round of lay-offs last year, he composed a transparent, compassionate message that links back to his company’s mission:

"Our mission is not merely about travel. When we started Airbnb, our original tagline was, “Travel like a human”. The human part was always more important than the travel part. What we are about is belonging, and the at the center of belonging is love."

Brian Chesky - CEO at Airbnb

From a culture-building perspective, there’s a lot this letter does right. The note is empathetic, includes resources for those being let go, and tells a story about Airbnb’s human-focused ethos that gives everyone something to unite around.

Perhaps most importantly, Chesky conveys just how valued every employee is. Ultimately, your employees’ time at your organization represents a significant chapter of their lives. Rather than a transactional relationship, enterprises with strong cultures ensure that employees walk away from their organization feeling like they have made a real difference.

6 culture-driven ways to discuss difficult news with your teams

With the right approach, you can turn difficult discussions into opportunities to strengthen your culture and unite your employees. If you’re getting ready to tell your workforce something that may be hard to hear, consider the following best practices:

#1. Emphasize transparency to build trust

Many workplaces have a trust issue. Nearly 50% of Americans surveyed don’t trust for-profit companies and 69% of employees believe that building trust should be a top priority for businesses today. But what can leaders do to earn their employees’ trust? 

Start by making sure your communications are clear and candid. All too often, leaders use corporate speak and professional jargon as a crutch when talking about something difficult. While it may seem easier to rely on this kind of language, it won’t do your culture any favors. In fact, it will often cause skepticism amongst your employees because they will feel like they’re not getting the whole truth.

Transparency is the antidote to this scenario. If you’re looking to create a culture of trust, start by initiating honest conversations, even if they are difficult. Consider launching virtual town halls to give employees the opportunity to interact with senior leaders and get their questions answered. Publish these meetings so that everyone can stay up to date and participate in your discussions.

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#2. Prioritize a facts-based approach

When you’re communicating something difficult to your employees, you need to make sure they have all of the facts and that there’s no confusion about what is happening next. While this might sound simple, it often proves challenging. Since sensitive messages are frequently reviewed by numerous stakeholders, there’s risk that some details may be edited out or lost during the approval process.

To make sure you’re leading with the facts, Unily consultant Kaz Hassan recommends the following exercise:

  1. List out all of the plain facts you want to include in your message in their simplest form
  2. Write each fact on a separate post-it note
  3. Once you’ve crafted your comms, revisit your original list
  4. Make sure you can place your post-its where each of your original facts are covered

The goal is to make sure that your employees walk away feeling like their questions have been answered. Ongoing uncertainty will devalue all of the hard work you've put into to cultivating a culture of trust and building genuine relationships with your employees.

A sense of clarity is particularly important when discussing something challenging. “During times of change, when emotions are running high, you have to do everything you can from a communications standpoint to be as clear as possible," Kaz notes. "Don’t leave anything up to interpretation and do whatever you can to dispel any lingering sense of confusion as it'll ultimately lead to problems later on.”


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#3. Don’t overlook empathy

The importance of empathy is readily apparent. 82% of CEO's believe that an empathetic workplace has a positive impact on business performance, motivating workers, and increasing productivity. However, when it comes to actually practicing empathy and building a compassionate culture, things are little less clear.

One of the biggest mistakes some leaders make is thinking that it is possible to mass communicate empathy. Ultimately, an individualized approach is always best because your employees’ unique backgrounds and personal preferences will dictate how they receive and react to various messages.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, Kaz recommends looking to your people managers, who are ultimately closest to your employees. “It’s your people managers’ jobs to know the individuals on their teams and understand their journey with the business, as well as their skillsets and their personalities. They need to care about the employees they oversee to understand what motivates them and how they contribute to your organization as a whole.”

If you want your messages to feel genuine, targeted, and respectful, arm your people managers with the resources needed to communicate effectively with their teams and provide support. With an employee experience platform (EXP), that might mean leaning heavily on social networking capabilities so that your people managers can quickly converse with their teams as well as leveraging your content management system (CMS) to make sure messages are targeted and aligned with user-specific preferences.

Unily intranet social channels

#4. Focus on two-way comms

Getting bad news is already disheartening. Feeling like you don’t have a voice or a chance to respond will only amplify these negative sentiments and detract from your employee culture.

In contrast, an emphasis on two-way comms not only makes delivering bad news better, it also improves how your employees feel about your organization. 90% of employees at organizations with strong cultures note that they feel heard by senior leaders.

However, for employees to truly feel like they’re being listened to, you need to make sure your two-way comms channels are more than surface level. “Organizations frequently ask for feedback particularly, when they’re going through a change, but the channels they provide are often one-dimensional,” Kaz notes.

As opposed to simply including a feedback form to fulfill an HR process requirement, give your employees multiple mediums to share their thoughts. “In reality, if you’re really looking for feedback and trying to improve how you are communicating change, you need to pull on different types of people for different things in different ways,” Kaz explains.

Utilize your people managers for one-to-one conversations and provide a channel for them to share the insights your employees voice during these discussions, so leadership teams can ultimately see what everyone is really looking for. Additionally, include a form for your employees who prefer to communicate digitally and anonymously as well as involving someone external, like an HR business partner, for a more balanced approach.


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Intranet employee experience survey

#5. Go the extra mile to support your employees

The best approach to breaking bad news is often pairing compassionate messaging with action items. Once you tell your employees about difficult changes, make it easy for them to get the support they need.

Start by making sure your health and wellbeing resources are up to par. Consider launching a wellbeing hub on your EXP that includes content on various health concerns, virtual workout and meditation classes, and dedicated wellbeing ambassadors to reach out to for personalized guidance. Remember that each employee who accesses these resources will have their own set of needs and preferences. A diverse array multi-media content will ensure that every user receives the guidance and support tools they are looking for.

Depending on the news you are communicating, you may wish to create additional resources for the employees who will be most directly impacted. For example, if a portion of your workforce is furloughed, you might create a site for these employees with relevant HR information and targeted content.

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#6. Give your people something to unite around

Don’t let your cultural initiatives fall by the wayside during challenging times. Eventually you will move into a more stable period and you’ll need engaged employees when you come out on the other side.

Even in the middle of a crisis, your culture should be actively managed and maintained. Although initiatives may be more limited and messaging needs to be sensitive, leaders should strive to give their employees opportunities to connect with their colleagues over causes they care about.

“Regardless of where your employees are in their journey with your organization, don’t underestimate the value of communities that sit outside of people’s functional roles,” Kaz says. From sports clubs to charitable causes and giveback initiatives, create internal networks that will inspire and unite your team members. Take advantage of your EXP to build a digital home for each of these communities, encouraging employees from across your organization to participate and connect with your corporate culture.

Weather the storm with an employee culture focused comms strategy

If you’re looking to enhance communications and reach your entire workforce in the work-from-anywhere era, get in touch with our digital workplace experts.

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