When to Disclose Bad News to Employees
An issue that often arises in the context of organizational change is when to tell employees about an adjustment they're likely to view as bad news. For some people, any change signifies bad news—or even just the hint of potential change at some unspecified time in the future. But let's face it; some bad news really is bad news. The question is when to disclose it to employees.
Sometimes, of course, managers are forced by their higher-ups to keep bad news to themselves until they're given the go-ahead to share it, such as when a premature disclosure could drive customers to the competition or damage the company's stock or reputation. It's a miserable situation to be in: facing employees every day knowing you have bad news that will affect them that you can't yet reveal.
Still, too often, managers who know about a potentially upsetting change refrain from informing employees, not because of orders from on high, but because they want to spare their employees any additional pain. At least, that's what these managers tell themselves. The real reason some managers withhold the bad news is to spare themselves any additional pain—in particular, the pain of dealing with their employees' inevitable distress.
The problem is that withholding information about an upcoming change in the name of kindness usually backfires because it amounts to treating adults like children. From the employees' perspective, deliberately withholding information that affects them is not just thoughtless and inconsiderate; it's also dishonest. Even worse, I've met a few managers who claimed they withheld bad news because it didn't occur to them that it would matter to others. What a blatant sign of disrespect!
In discussing this issue with a team I once worked with, one member of the team questioned whether it's not only dishonest, but also unethical for a manager to refrain from giving employees news that will affect them and that he's free to disclose. A lively exchange of ideas ensued as team members debated the issue. In the end, the majority concluded that the ethical thing to do, almost always, is to disclose the information, even if doing so is likely to generate negative reactions and strong emotions. We all agreed, however, that this is something that’s easy to say but much harder to do when the situation actually arises.
What about you? When do you disclose—or refrain from disclosing—bad news?