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Delivering bad news in tough times


In Western Canada, particularly Alberta, many workers and business leaders in the trucking industry are feeling increasingly anxious because of the collapse in oil prices. Workers are wondering what 2016 will bring in terms of job security.

Trucking, because it is a business sector that services other industries, is affected because of the ripple effect in the economy. The province’s trucking leaders are shouldering a heavy burden now as they are forced to navigate their operations through obstacles that, in many ways, are largely out of their control. 

A leader’s role is to build trust and loyalty among workers and communication is the tool used to achieve this. During challenging times, good communication is paramount to helping alleviate concern and solidifying employees’ loyalty. Good communication helps eliminate speculation and mitigates fear, and when you mitigate fear you have staff focused on helping you get through tough times.

Several years ago, a study by Weber Shandwick showed that when faced with troubling economic news, the majority of workers expected bad news would come their way as a result of the economy. A sizable number said they thought layoffs would be in their future.

They might have been right or they might be wrong. The research showed that 71% of those workers felt their company’s leadership should be communicating more with them about the impact the current economic situation will have on their company. More than 54% of respondents had not heard anything at all from company leaders on the impact of the economy. The result of this survey provides valuable lessons for trucking leaders. First and foremost, silence isn’t golden when a business is undergoing challenging times. The tough economic times Alberta is facing needs to be addressed head-on in messaging trucking leaders deliver to their employees.

There remains in the workplace a disparity between the amount of communication that employees need during tough times and the level of communication that company leaders are providing.

The leaders of well-managed companies are constantly aware that the opinions and morale of employees are never contained within the workplace. Employees communicate outside of their organization and messages get out whether leaders wish them to or not. Social media has made it possible for employees to communicate with lightning speed. And in trucking, a larger portion of the workforce spend their workday in the customers’ workplace. It is vitally important that these people are well informed as to how their company leadership is managing any crises.

So the question arises: What can you say if you don’t know what’s going to happen? Employees would rather hear you say you don’t really know what the impact will be, than have you remain silent and reclusive. It is absolutely fine – in fact adds to credibility – for leaders to acknowledge uncertainty. It will engender respect and a feeling that ‘we are all in this together.’

What is needed during times of crisis is presence – not necessarily all the answers. It is fine to say you are monitoring markets, meeting with customers, watching conditions and even admitting that you aren’t in control of outside forces that impact how the company will fare.

But the overriding rule here is to commit to getting back to employees with information when it becomes available. What happens when things get to the point where a business needs to communicate about layoffs? There are a few things to keep in mind to communicate bad news:

First of all, it should not come as a surprise that the company is experiencing challenges. If you did all the things outlined above in keeping employees informed of what the company was doing to cope with market conditions, then you’ve already taken care of Step #1.

Step #2 – Start with a neutral statement. Start the message with factual information that cannot be challenged. (Something about the current economic climate, or how the company has faced similar conditions before).

Step #3 – Get to the point. Deliver the bad news by saying exactly who it affects and how it will affect them.

Step #4 – Explain why. Provide information about why you are taking the action.

Step #5 – Close with a positive message. Encouragement and tact are more likely to get you the results you want.

Step #6 – Provide helpful suggestions. (Is there a severance package, placement assistance program, anything else that can offer hope and support to the employee?)

It should be obvious, but employees directly affected by layoffs should be communicated with first. Followed immediately after by employees remaining behind. No one should ever learn they are being laid off by reading it in the newspaper, on a trucking press Web site or from a notice tacked on the front door of the terminal. Same goes for those left behind. Trucking leaders are being presented with an opportunity to actually improve relations with employees. Weathering the rough times together, will set the stage for a more effective organization when better times are back. 

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Rebecka Freels is a communications professional who offers strategic counsel to clients in the transportation sector. She can be reached at Rebecka@beyondwordscommunications.com.


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