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If the Shoe Fits: When Bad Stuff Happens

by Miki Saxon

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mA few days ago I was asked if it was OK to warn a startup team by email that it was doubtful funding would happen before the money ran out.

My response was ‘absolutely not!’

The final word from a variety of experts is that it is not OK to fire, lay-off, break up, ask for a divorce, ground kids or any similar action by email, text or even by phone.

These are all subjects that must be done face-to-face for a variety of reasons, but all falling under one of the falling categories,

  • Respect
  • Trust
  • Authenticity
  • Transparency
  • Fairness

The list goes on, but I’m sure you get it.

That said, I thought I’d repost a slightly edited how-to for dealing with bad news that is as applicable today as it was when hard-copy memos, wires, carrier pigeons and smoke signals were the normal modes of communication.

Bosses know when they’re in trouble (duh), but they still seem to think that their people don’t know the facts (double duh).

Too many bosses, from startups through Fortune 100 and everything in-between, clamp down, say nothing, run scared, freeze, bluster, or some combination thereof and do it by email and/or text.

The result is management by rumor, which once started never ends.

The way to deal with bad news is directly, openly and honestly.

Even when the subject is no funding or lay-offs this axiom applies; in fact, it’s the only approach that gives your company or your reputation a chance of emerging intact.

Here are six basics to keep uppermost in your mind—whether they are comfortable or not.

  1. Bad news must be communicated in person—just like good news.
  2. Employees aren’t dumb—they know something bad is happening—and if they’re not explicitly told what it is, rumors will make any difficulty a catastrophe and a catastrophe a death knell.
  3. Management must be explicit about the ultimate potential consequences. In a situation that’s unfolding, such as a funding or economic crisis, when no one knows the ultimate outcome or can predict when it will change, frequent updates are effective.
  4. Everyone hates uncertainty, which is all you may have to offer, so analyzing and then explaining the worst case outcome as well as what you’re doing to counter it and how your people can contribute goes a long way to stabilizing the team and gaining their buy-in to your plans.
  5. Successful plans are dependent on how well they are communicated, which is what determines employee buy-in; if you choose the delusional approach of minimizing the situation then you should expect minimal results and maximum disruption.
  6. Share the outcome of your thinking, whatever it is—layoffs, plant closures, project cancellations, etc. If you don’t trust your people with the information your problems are far more serious than you realize.

Any solution to a crisis must be seen as fair, reasonable, and businesslike. If management’s reaction is illogical, petty, slipshod, unrealistic, draconian or any combination of these, then it’s likely employees will conclude the ship is about to sink and leap off.

People understand that difficult situations demand difficult remedies, and they appreciate that management must at times step up to harsh challenges. But if solutions are irrationally or whimsically applied, they become a demoralizing factor, increasing the difficulties that people encounter in trying to do their jobs.

Finally, you should always attempt to find a positive note to leave with employees. Everyone already knows that things are bad; it’s your job to find a potentially favorable course of action.

Just remember, you hired your people for their brains, so don’t expect them to suddenly go dumb. Employees easily spot propaganda masquerading as a solution.

Predicting an impossibly favorable outcome not only demeans your reputation, but also could affect your future entrepreneurial efforts.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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