News Release: Faculty Experts, Finance and Economics

Jun. 1,  2009

Honesty Best Policy in Giving Bad News, Say Management Experts

From Knowledge@Emory

The economic downturn may be resulting in belt-tightening efforts and bad news for employees at many U.S. firms, but the best way to deliver even the most painful information is to face it head-on, says Nikki Graves, assistant professor in the practice of management communication at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. Employers should speak in the most open and honest terms possible when communicating with staff, she says.

Graves admits that often managers “do not have all the answers,” but when employees approach them with questions, managers do need to be frank in their response.

“In these times, it’s best not to hide out, or pretend that you have all of the answers,” she says. “Give as much information as needs to be communicated, and when the situation is unclear, it’s okay to admit that you are unsure of how it will play out.” The worst thing for managers to do is to create a “climate of ambiguity,” says Graves.

Timing is everything

Knowing when to communicate the news of a corporate reorganization or strategy shift can sometimes be just as hard as delivering news of a layoff, according to Brandon Smith, senior lecturer in the practice of management communication at Goizueta. Timing the announcement is key.

“If you plan on engaging your workforce and getting a buy-in on a major initiative,” says Smith, “you simply can’t deliver this sort of information when you are in mass layoff mode, for instance.”

Smith notes that employees used to “business as usual” will find it difficult to shift gears to some new effort. And those “left behind” after a mass layoff will need time to process other structural changes at the company.

“You really have to think about how to reengage people,” he adds. It can be especially difficult for those asked to work harder, especially if they are thinking about their friends and associates who have been let go from the company. This is when skillful leadership is important. Work has to continue, says Smith, but the operation most certainly will be a “leaner and meaner” one.

View complete article in Knowledge@Emory.

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