5 tips for having difficult conversations with your employees

How do I say this? Delivering bad news sucks. It can range from being mildly uncomfortable to ulcer-inducing. But as a business owner or manager, it’s an unavoidable part of the job. There’ll be times when you need to provide an employee with negative feedback about performance. You may have to tell a great worker they didn’t get a promotion or you have to cut their hours. Or you may need to announce team furloughs or layoffs. Balancing the best interests of the company and your employees isn’t easy. Here are our tips for making these conversations go as smoothly as possible.  

  1. Prepare for the conversationBefore you speak with an employee or a team, it’s critical to have a full understanding of the facts. Be prepared to share how the decision was made, who was consulted, what other possibilities were considered and the rationale for the final decision. In some cases, you may be the sole decision maker, but in other instances you may need clarification from higher-ups in the company. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to field questions and concerns from employees. A useful practice is to brainstorm a list of FAQs to help you think through all the aspects of the decision and fine-tune your message. Also, take the time to imagine how you’d feel if you were to receive the news. Often, what needs to be said can be difficult to hear. Being able to empathize with the situation will inform your approach to the conversation.

  2. Be direct. Be brief.Bad news is bad news. Trying to talk your way around it does a disservice to your employees. Don’t spin it, sugar coat it or play the blame game. Avoid a long pre-ramble and get straight to the point. Your objective is to ensure that the message is clearly received and completely understood. 

Be aware of your body language during your delivery. Non-verbal cues like hunched shoulders, avoiding eye contact and fidgeting may dilute your message and cause recipients to misinterpret it. It’s certainly okay to express compassion during your conversation, just as long as you maintain a tone of clarity. Experts also recommend repeating the message several times so that it sinks in.

If you have bad news to give, don’t put it off. You run the risk of recipients hearing it from a second-hand source. You may cause unnecessary anxiety and rumors to spread within your company. And you may damage your credibility as a leader.


  1. Explain how the decision was madePeople need to hear the facts, but they also need to understand the how and why that’s driving a decision (aka: the bad news). This is where you can explain the problem. You can provide an overview of the decision-making process and the reasoning behind it. Imagine a company telling employees that it’s decided to cut hours for the entire team. Workers would justifiably be upset. But the company could explain that losing a big client led to significant decreases in revenue. And, it could then explain how cutting hours for the entire team will allow everyone to remain on the payroll while the business finds replacement clients.

Research has shown that people are willing to accept an unfavorable outcome if they believe the decision-making process was fair. Being honest, transparent and respectful in a bad-news situation creates a perception of fairness. You may not always be able to offer up all of the information related to a decision, but employees deserve a reasonable account of the situation.

Regardless of whether you’re just the messenger, you need to take ownership of the decision. This takes courage. But being able to have these difficult conversations and tell it like it is can earn you the trust and loyalty of your team. Not doing so can make workers feel cynical about management and erode trust.

4. Find the right time and placeYou should always deliver bad news in person—not by email or a text. Not only is it the courteous thing to do, but it’s more effective. These are sensitive conversations, so have them in a private location, away from non-affected staff, where recipients can absorb the news and react. If you’re making an announcement to a large group, it may be worth breaking it into smaller groups. This often helps people feel more comfortable asking questions. As far as when to deliver news, try to avoid a time that would leave a recipient to suffer alone, with no opportunities to connect with colleagues or HR resources. For example, a weekday worker receiving news on Friday afternoon would be left with an entire weekend to stress out.

5. Allow time for employees to process and respond

Receiving bad news is distressing. It’s natural to feel shocked, sad, angry or anxious. Once you’ve delivered your message, allow time for people to respond and make sure you actively listen. This is when employees can ask questions, express their concerns and vent their emotions. This isn’t the time for “look on the bright side” pep talks. As you’re empathizing, though, you should resist making comments that side with the recipients. Saying things like “I think this is a bad decision, too” can open you up to a debate about the decision. And that’s counterproductive.


Focusing forward

The concluding step in this process is to help recipients move forward. This can begin right away after all questions have been answered or a few days later after people have had time to think and adjust. Try to involve them in problem-solving for solutions or next steps. And emphasize that you’re a partner ready to assist in any way you can. Are there job-placement and resume-writing resources you can offer to laid-off workers? Can you help an underperformer receive more training to get up to speed? What skills does the worker passed over for a promotion need to get to the next level? Getting bad news can take a toll on a worker’s self esteem and confidence. Make yourself available to restore it.

Tom Quinn |
Tom (he/him) is a growth marketing manager at Snagajob helping small businesses find hourly workers.