How to Break Bad News without Sinking Your Acquisition

Poor communication can really hamper your integration efforts, especially when you have to break bad news to your employees. When it comes to sharing an unpopular message, some executives try to sugar coat or beat around the bush. In my experience, avoidance tactics are not effective and just make employees angrier once they eventually find out the truth.

Pulling the Band-Aid Off

The best way to break bad news is to pull the Band-Aid off very quickly. Get bad news out early on in the integration process. Many people often assume the worst when they hear their company is being acquired so they might not be as shocked earlier in the process. If you wait until later, you’ll likely face more resistance from employees who are starting to feel comfortable again.

You might feel uncomfortable with the “pulling the Band-Aid off” approach, but it does work. I was once part of an integration program where we were on the floor of a unionized factory the morning after we closed on an acquisition. Unfortunately, the plan was to shut down this particular factory. I remember standing there, waiting for the new owner to give them the bad news and wondering how he would deliver it.

To my surprise, he stood up and said, “I want you to know that we intend to shut down this facility. Most of you are going to lose your jobs in the next six to nine months.”

At first, there was a lot of anger, frustration, and confusion. But as the buyer walked them through how things were going to work and told them about the career placement, counseling, and benefits available to them during the transition, the workers began to calm down. They were still angry, but they respected the fact that they weren’t lied to. They appreciated the early communication, which gave them time to prepare and plan for how the integration would impact them.

Sharing the bad news early also helps you eliminate confusion and prevent the rumor mill from starting. As bad as your news may be, the rumors will be ten times worse.

Advice for Breaking the Bad News

Of course each situation is different, but generally, there are a couple of things you can do to break bad news in the “best way.”

1. Be Certain – First, make sure that you have thought through the decision and are certain you wish to move forward. Once you proceed down a path, it’s very difficult to reverse the ship, so be sure that in the long run this is the best decision for the newly merged company.

2. Write it Down – Once you have arrived at the decision, write it down. This way you can get people comfortable around the message and make sure everyone is saying the same thing. This is especially helpful if people are not particularly passionate or excited about the decision. Effectively you are giving people a script so there will be symmetry in your communication.

There’s really no good way to break bad news, but it’s important to be honest and not to drag it out. The sooner you tell people, the sooner you can move forward toward success.

Photo Credit: John Haslam via Flickr cc