How to break bad news to employees

Tough conversations are an unavoidable part of business. But next time you need to break bad news, don’t follow Hutchison Ports Australia’s lead.

In early August 2015, the shipping giant sacked almost half its work force by midnight text message and email. Employees were told to stop turning up to work immediately, and that a courier would return personal items to their homes.

It’s never okay to sack workers by text message. It’s even worse if you’ve told employees they’ll find out about job losses in person.

Stick to your word

Back in July 2015, Hutchison Ports set clear expectations about how it would communicate bad news. Management said it would meet face-to-face with workers losing their jobs. It promised that no one would be asked to leave immediately, and that employees would have an opportunity to respond.

Hutchison Ports appeared to be making the best of a bad situation. When it found out it had to cut staff, it notified employees and told them what to expect.

But just a few weeks later, it sacked 97 workers by text message. No warning, no meetings, no further discussion. Fired employees told media they were devastated both by the news and how it was delivered. It’s not hard to see why.

Consider those left behind

Handling tough conversations in the wrong way can backfire, and not for the reasons you might expect.

Hutchison Ports’ actions don’t just affect those who lost their jobs. It’s also bad news for remaining employees.

The company doesn’t have much of a workforce left, but we’ll bet those remaining feel pretty disengaged. Would you care about doing a good job if half your colleagues were unceremoniously fired?

If remaining employees are as dejected as we suspect, Hutchison Ports stands to lose a lot more than the workers it sacked. With reduced productivity, higher turnover and poor morale, things don’t look good for the shipping giant.

Respect your employees

Hutchison Ports showed a lack of sensitivity and respect when it fired its workers. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s always better to deliver that news in person instead of hiding behind a text message.

Every employer will need to let an employee go at some point. Whether they’re underperforming or you need to cut costs, it’s never an easy conversation.

While it’s up to you to deliver the news in a sensitive manner, performance-tracking software like easyEMPLOYER can help. By keeping track of attendance records and warnings, you’ll have the data back up your decisions. At least you know you’ll be making those tough decisions with solid information behind you.

So what do we learn?

The takeaways from Hutchison Ports are very simple, but often neglected:

1) Honour your commitments:

If you’ve committed to communicate about major workforce changes in person, stick to it. To steer your employees through rough seas, you have to keep their trust.

2) Meet expectations:

Hutchison’s actions would’ve drawn fire even if they hadn’t made that explicit commitment to meet in person. Community expectations hold that the more severe the content of the message, the more care and effort is needed to deliver it.

At the low severity, low effort end we have a simple shift swap. An automated text message is fine to carry that message. At the high severity end, we have a termination notice.

When you adapt your communications to meet your employee’s expectations, you keep them engaged, and hold on to your best employees.