10 tips for delivering bad news to employees

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From negative performance reviews and massive employee layoffs to federal budget cuts and fatal test results, bad news is almost a daily phenomenon across all industries and sectors.

Despite its frequent occurrence in organizational processes, the delivery of bad news remains one of the most difficult tasks facing leaders, which is often caused by emotional reactions or undeveloped skill sets.

When delivering bad news, I recommend transitioning through each phase by following these ten steps:

1. Prepare yourself

Most executives stumble in this first step. Once it has been determined that bad news must be delivered, managers should work to compartmentalize emotions and equip themselves with the skills needed to most effectively deliver bad news.

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2. Send advance warning

Managers must provide advance warning that the delivery of bad news is coming. Whether increasing transparency or offering updates on sensitive matters managers must signal the possibility of bad news. Bad news should never come as a surprise.

3. Consult others

Prior to the delivery, managers should consult with key influencers and organizational stakeholders to seek support. This will also create an opportunity to consider possible items overlooked, work towards a consensus, and inform key constituents of the situation. In delivering bad news, one should always stand up, but never stand alone!

4. Document communication

Document any and all communication, actions, and memos created before the actual delivery. This proactive measure can help during future conversations, evaluations, or questions.

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5. Consider channels

 Depending on the severity of the bad news, leaders should determine the appropriate delivery medium - email, phone, in-person meeting, etc. The more serious the bad news, the more face-to-face time is needed.

6. Rehearse delivery

Since the delivery of bad news can be a challenging task, managers should rehearse prior to the actual delivery. This can be done individually or with trusted friends or family members in an effort to practice messaging and body language.

7. Don't delay

Do not delay the delivery of bad news. Delays can be costly, as conditions may continue to worsen. Bad news delayed is bad news compounded.

8. Offer explanation

 Without offering more than two reasons, managers must explain why the bad news occurred. Try to conclude the delivery and conversation with a positive or hopeful statement. Managers should seek to provide solutions and look for any "silver linings" to mitigate the negative impact or perception of the news.

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9. Correct performance

Following the delivery of bad news, performance issues must be addressed and corrected in order to build commitment and support going forward. Keep leadership informed of progress with frequent updates to clear any aftertaste from the bad news.

10. Engage in public relations

 After the bad news is delivered, manager are still under scrutiny and judgment. People may question the competency and leadership ability of managers. So, publicize the successes, let people know that the situation has improved. Remember, perception is reality.

By following these ten steps, managers can effectively communicate with employees, improve morale for those not directly impacted by the bad news, and renew people's confidence in your ability to lead. When delivering bad news, managers must remember they are communicating to a human being. It is in the bad times that a leader's ability and character is most tested.

Robert J. Bies is a professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and an expert in leadership, the delivery of bad news, organizational justice and forgiveness in the workplace. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBies.

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