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Communicating Bad News in Tough Times

By John Almond - April 29, 2010

Part II in a series

As I mentioned in a previous article, research shows that management is often reluctant to communicate bad news.  But if open and honest communication is not a part of a district’s culture, then communicating bad news will result in more bad news.

How you and your district cope in tough times is a reflection of true character.  How you communicate during those tough times reflects your values. Here are a few tips that may help the cause as we deal with today’s realities:

  1. If you have bad news to tell your staff, make sure that it doesn’t come from out of left field.  Regular employee briefings are essential.  Your staff won’t feel blindsided if you have kept them apprised all along.
  2. Plan the dissemination of bad news meticulously.  Carefully plan out each step, craft each message, and go over the timing for delivery as if your career depended on it.  It might!
  3. Make certain that your administrative staff is well informed so that they can follow up with employees who may become highly distressed.
  4. Tell everything that you know, and tell it to all parties as rapidly as possible.  In today’s world, news travels fast thanks to mobile phones and email.  You can rest assured that rumors and general gossip will quickly fill any information vacuum that you leave.
  5. Tell as many people as possible in person.  Whether it is sympathy, encouragement, empathy, or comfort, they will take away an impression of leadership when you’ve spoken to them face-to-face and added the human dimension.
  6. Impart tough news with the gravitas it is due.  Don’t try to minimize it or, above all, don’t try to make jokes.  When someone’s job is at stake, it can be a life threatening experience for that person.
  7. Make sure that everything about the tough news that you have delivered is also available in written form.  People need something to refer to when they’ve gone home for the day, and they won’t remember all that you said in your speech.
  8. Make sure that your employees are aware of the bad news before the media.  Nothing is more disheartening than to find out that you may be losing your job according to an article in the newspaper.  It is a betrayal of your employees’ trust and makes you and your district look inept at best and unscrupulous at worst.

Last but not least, expect – indeed, plan for – the unexpected.  To that end, make certain that everyone in the district has someone with whom they can vent.  When times are tough, people want to vent.  And “getting it off their chest” is often a good thing.

(To read Part One in this series, click here.)

Editor's Note:  John Almond is the Director of District Support Services for the educational consulting firm Total School Solutions (TSS).