How to Break Bad News

Whether the change is big or small, you can bring people through it with a minimum of complaining and your credibility intact
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

My husband ate a lot of hot dogs growing up. It was his mother’s go-to dinner and she always put mayonnaise on the hot dog buns. My husband hated mayonnaise as a child. He ate it, because he assumed that it was healthy. Why else would anyone eat something so disgusting?

And then one golden day he discovered the truth–mayonnaise was not healthy. He told his mother that he never wanted mayonnaise on his hot dog ever again. She agreed to his request. And then the next time they had hot dogs for dinner, and there was mayonnaise on his hot dog. When questioned about this unreasonable turn of events, the elder Mrs. Douglas said “Well there isn’t that much.”

This probably wasn’t the only time that my mother in law forgot to do something for her opinionated son. However this is the instance he remembers–and he will never let her live it down. I heard this story again last night, and it occurred to me this morning that those of us in business can learn how to break bad news from the story of the hot dogs.

Learn the Lesson of the Hot Dogs

Photo by Victoria Shes on Unsplash

To put this family situation into business terms, leadership introduced an item that bothered the line staff. Staff complained, and leadership promised to fix it. Then they forgot, and excused themselves by saying that it wasn’t that big of a problem to begin with.

Most of our business problems have nothing to do with hot dogs (unless you work for a hot dog company) but many of us have run into similar situations. Perhaps IT has introduced two factor authentication or a VPN portal to your computer systems. Perhaps the payroll department now requires all payroll approvals to happen on Mondays, even on holidays, no exceptions.

Unless you own your own business, (and sometimes even then) you have probably had someone tell you that you have to do a new thing that takes more time than the old thing you used to do. If you own a process or manage people, you may also have to break the news about the new thing to the people around you.

For the purposes of this discussion we will assume that the company must implement the change. We will also assume that leadership carefully weighed all possible pros and cons before moving forward with it. Even taking these assumptions into account, there is a right way and a wrong way to communicate bad news–and deal with the fall out.

Your Audience May Not Have a Problem

Kitten pictures are cute, but don’t send them instead of an explanation for a coming change. Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Unless you know for sure that everyone in the company hates the old system, assume that some people enjoy using it. Of the people who didn’t enjoy using it, there is a subset that can perform the clunky process without thinking about it.

These folks don’t recognize that there’s a problem to solve. They will need to hear why their system or process has to change. Saying something like ‘We need to change our payroll day to align with the parent company’ may not fill anyone with joy, but your employees will appreciate knowing the actual answer.

This approach is much better than trying to get people excited about your solution to a problem they don’t have. For instance (and apologies in advance to all graphic designers) when I get an email announcing the ‘new look and feel’ coming to my favorite website, it fills me with dread. I assume this means someone is going to break (or take away) my favorite features. At the very least I’ll have to spend extra time learning where all the buttons went. The more cheerful your email, the more I assume this is going to hurt.

Watch Your Tone

Take your time crafting your message. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Most people hate delivering bad news. It’s no fun telling people things that will make them feel bad. It’s even less fun listening to people complain about it. Most of us think we’re pretty good at handling change. The sad fact is that we’re all very good at handling change so long as no one changes the things we care about. It’s human nature.

You can’t eliminate the human tendency to complain, but you can lower the number of people who feel the need to do so if you adopt the right tone. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to tell people that something is changing.

Don’t tell people that the change is ‘no big deal.’

Let them come to that conclusion for themselves. Some changes create unforeseen consequences, and you don’t want to lose your credibility as a trusted source of information. This is especially true in larger companies, where it’s impossible to truly understand the way work flows through different departments.

For example, my work portal signs me out of the system every twenty minutes or so. This isn’t a big deal when I’m composing an email or working on a google doc because the computer saves my work. It’s a very large annoyance when I’m using a certain system that has to query a database several times over the course of a few minutes. In some cases, I have spent time adjusting numbers and fields, only to have my work erased when the system logs me out.

I don’t have polite things to say when this happens.

Assume you are dropping this change into a complex system.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

When you go to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, your pharmacist asks for a list of other medications you may be taking. This is to make sure that the prescription meant to help you doesn’t kill you when it interacts with the other drugs in your system.

When you change a work process or system, that change isn’t happening in isolation. You or your colleague may not die because of a harmful interaction between two changes, but a small change can lead to a large amount of frustration. Let’s go back to the system that signs me out every twenty minutes. I interact with this system on a computer that freezes up every time I change tabs or try to load data rich documents. Often, when I get logged out of my portal, my computer will lock up. This is also a very busy time of the year at my job, and it’s harder to work faster when my entire computer seizes.

In this case, I have a new computer wending it’s way to my home office. Relief is coming. I may have to learn to live with the twenty minute sign out, but I’ll do it on a computer that doesn’t freeze up if I look at it funny. Where possible, leadership should provide relief from the unintended consequences of changes.

Lead with empathy.

After you explain why you have to change something, acknowledge the annoyance. ‘We need to use two-factor authentication to comply with new security standards in our field. We realize this may mean you will log into the system multiple times over the course of the day. Thank you for your patience as we make our customer data safer.’

Acknowledging the annoyance helps everyone to feel seen. For many people, that’s all they need to keep them from complaining to you. Others might reach out to complain, but they will usually acknowledge that you weren’t going out of your way to ruin their lives.

In my work as an analyst, I decide who gets to run certain programs, and who doesn’t. I break bad news on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that leading with empathy is often the difference between someone flipping out, and someone telling you they understand your decision.

None of us like breaking bad news. It can be tempting to throw our hands up in the air and give up attempting to craft our message. Take time to strike the right tone, provide context for a change, and lead with empathy. If you do, you can bring people through the change with a minimum of complaining–and your credibility intact.

How to Say Goodbye When a Remote Worker Leaves

Whether it’s you or your coworker leaving, it’s important to say goodbye. Here’s how to put the ‘good’ in goodbye.


Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, a colleague left our company to start a new job. It was a bittersweet ending–I was both happy for her and sorry to lose a Slack chat buddy. As much as I’ll miss my colleague–we’ll call her ‘Andi’–I’m grateful for the care she took when she prepared to leave the company.

In an in-person office, there are often clues that someone is leaving their job. At the very least, someone may escort the employee to the door, box of personal items in hand. Under happier circumstances, you might attend a goodbye lunch, or sit in the person’s cubicle at the end of the day, reminiscing about old times.

In the remote space, there are no incidental visual cues. You may not notice that someone has left until you send an email or chat message and it bounces back.

This can be unsettling for both the people who leave and the people who stay. If you’re the one leaving and no one says anything, is it because everyone secretly hates you? As the colleague left behind, you may also have questions. Did your coworker get fired? Are you next? And who is your new point of contact?

Whether you’re the one leaving or the one sticking around, it’s important to build in a sense of closure.

When You’re the One Leaving

Don’t ghost unless it’s better for your mental health. Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

Andi did a great job of preparing her team for her departure. After telling her manager, she made several video calls to break the news to her closest coworkers. Other folks received an instant message or an email from her. And on her last day, she sent a general email wishing us all a fond farewell.

The approach you take will be dictated by the circumstances of your departure. It’s obviously easier to give closure to your colleagues if leaving is your idea. If your workplace and coworkers are hostile, you may decide that they don’t deserve a fond farewell.

Take a moment to think about the people you know in your company before writing them all off. The beauty of the remote workforce is that you can choose to email the one or two folks that might matter to you, and ignore the rest.

Your remote setting gives you total control over how much interaction you have with your soon-to-be former coworkers. If you want (or wouldn’t mind) answering questions about why you’re leaving or what you’re doing next, set up video calls. If you don’t want to get into ANY of the details, send an email that briefly informs people that you’re leaving, and then details who the new point person will be for your tasks.

Instant message is that half step between these two extremes. You can answer questions while filtering out some of the emotional intensity you or the other person might feel. Be aware that most company-owned instant messaging apps, channels, and software are not private. You might not care about burning bridges, but your coworker might not feel the same way.

Consider whether or not you want to keep in contact with your ex-colleagues. In the age of social media, leaving a job no longer means losing track of people you care about. Think about all of the social networks you are on, and weigh the level of professional vs personal information you share on those networks. Are you comfortable with your ex-colleagues seeing what you post? If so, you might want to include your social media handles in your targeted farewell emails.

When Your Colleague is Leaving

It can be all too easy to let your colleague leave without making a point of saying goodbye. You may be uncertain if someone chose to give notice, or if someone else made the decision for them. If your colleague is being laid off, you may think that it’s better to give the person some space.

Your coworker might not want to talk to you or anyone else. There is a difference, though, between making someone talk to you, and telling someone that you’ll miss them. Most of us would want to know that our coworkers would miss us if we left. This is especially true if we were laid off or fired. Sending an email that simply says ‘I heard you’re leaving and I’m sorry to see you go. I wish you nothing but the best,’ takes very little time to write, but might give someone a boost during a tough time.

Writing a brief email can mean a lot to a departing colleague. Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

If you don’t know the departing colleague well, that email will likely be all you do to say goodbye. If you’ve worked with this person on a regular basis, you might want to suggest that you’re willing to meet with the person over video. Adding ‘I’ll understand if you don’t have any time to talk, but my (video/IM) door is open at any time before you leave’ to your email is a tactful way to suggest a meeting without putting the person in an awkward position. As an aside, don’t add this to your email unless you’re actually willing to meet.

It can be tricky to figure out if you should offer to continue the relationship over social media. No one wants to make the first move, only to find out that the other party isn’t that interested in you. Remember, though, that the person is leaving the company. If you guess wrong (and they don’t want to stay in touch) it isn’t as if you’ll have to see them every day.

If the person is worth the possibility of a little momentary embarrassment, saying something like ‘I’m not sure if you’re on social media, but here is my social media handle in case you are’ puts the onus on them to follow up.

When to Consider Throwing a Goodbye Event

Photo by Delaney Dawson on Unsplash

The person leaving is your direct report. Unless the person is leaving due to performance issues, holding some sort of goodbye event is a classy thing to do. Perhaps you’re upset with the person for leaving. Your reaction to your employee’s departure will send a message to the rest of the team. Do you want your team to think that you the sort of leader who will prevent people from growing in their career? Do you like getting more than two weeks’ notice? The rest of your team will note your reaction and plan accordingly.

Perhaps your company forced you to lay someone off. You may have agonized over deciding who had to leave. You may be dealing with feelings of guilt and remorse. Don’t let your feelings get in the way of doing the right thing for your team. They need your help navigating through this tough situation. This is especially true if you’ve done a good job fostering a sense of camaraderie. Help your people to say goodbye.

There are situations where it isn’t appropriate to hold a goodbye party. In such cases, it may be appropriate to acknowledge your direct report at the last team meeting. Take the employee’s state of mind into account. If the person is completely opposed to attending an event, or acting hostile, then skip it.

Some people will need to leave without fanfare. Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

If your departing employee is willing to attend an event, there are ways to keep things from getting too awkward. Consider reaching out to the person ahead of time to see if they want to say anything to the team. They may not want to. Reach out to the rest of your direct reports and see if they want to say a few words.

If nothing else, you should prepare your own comments. Acknowledge the length of the person’s employment, mention anything you appreciate about the person’s work, and wish them well. If no one wishes to talk, then end the meeting early. In any case, end the meeting when the conversation begins to lag. Goodbyes can be tough, but keeping them brief can prevent them from becoming painful.

The person is leaving for a happy reason, and no one else is throwing a party. Some people are terrible at saying goodbye. I’ve worked at companies where people act as if giving your two weeks’ notice is admitting to an infidelity. Perhaps this attitude made more sense when people were given a job for life. It’s hypocritical if the company has ever laid someone off. Your job is not your spouse. It’s okay to leave if you find something better.

Before you set off to plan your rogue goodbye party, ask around to see if anyone else is already doing so. This is also a good time to find out if your colleague has friends in other departments who might want to come. Put a video meeting on the calendar, and tell people they can come and go at will. Try to find some outgoing person to help you keep the conversational ball rolling. It might make sense to ask a few people to come prepared to tell their favorite story about the person who’s leaving.

You can have a happy hour on a video call. Ask people to bring the beverage of their choice.
Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

Whether you’re leaving your company or your coworker is leaving, it’s important to say goodbye. Doing so can help you and those around you to work through difficult feelings and find closure. It may feel awkward in the moment, but taking the time to say goodbye will help you honor your past and clean your slate for the next phase in your professional life.

What Makes a Successful Remote Worker? Interview with Roberta Sawatzky

There may not be a magic formula for succeeding as a remote worker, but there are certain competencies that can increase your chances of success.


Roberta Sawatzky is a business consultant who guides her clients and readers through career development, change, and transition, with an added focus on remote work. In addition to her role as a consultant, Roberta is a Business Professor in the Okanagan School of Business in Kelowna, BC, Canada

I first met Roberta in a Slack channel devoted to discussions around distributed teams. When I found out that she had just completed some research around remote worker competencies, I knew I had to interview her for the blog. You can get a copy of her full report HERE.

Why did you decide to research remote worker competencies?

I care deeply about helping people realize their greatest potential, specifically in their working environment. Having worked in the areas of management and human resources in a variety of sectors (for profit, not-for-profit, academia, public sector), I saw the importance of supporting, developing, and providing valuable feedback to my team members.

I was also involved with an organization who provided notification services to employees being terminated. It never ceased to amaze me how many employees were surprised at receiving their notice, and reported having had very limited, if any, professional development offered, or feedback on their performance. When I considered how common this was in collocated organizations, when employees and employers were face to face on a daily basis, it caused me to wonder how much more epidemic the lack of support would be in a context where personal interaction and physical presence was rare.

Thus began the research to first seek out what was necessary for success as a remote worker, what feedback looked like, and what support was desired…all from the perspective of the remote worker.

Are there remote-worker specific competencies?

I would suggest that there are some common competencies between remote and collocated workers, however, the level of proficiency necessary in each competency is higher for remote that collocated.

Were you looking at things that would help remote workers do a good job, things that would help them to be happy in their job, or a little bit of both?

The simple answer is yes. Competencies by definition are the knowledge, skills and abilities a person should possess in order to successfully perform their job. If we can identify what those competencies are, and build a recruitment and selection process around them…right down to the interview questions, the likelihood of both job success and job satisfaction is greatly increased.

Was there anything that surprised you about what you discovered?

I’m not sure that I was as much surprised as overwhelmed by the honesty and passion with which the research respondents shared their opinions, joys, and challenges. These are a group of hard working, dedicated people who are totally committed to doing their best.

Probably what saddened me the most were the number of people who reported total lack of support from their managers or supervisors (to be sure, over the course of the research I met, and hear about some amazing managers that others could learn a great deal from). While some are simply negligent, I would suggest the majority simply don’t know how to manage in the remote world. What works in a face to face setting doesn’t necessarily translate into a virtual setting.

Is there any quality that guarantees success as a remote worker?

Guarantees? I would not go that far. However, possessing the competencies revealed in the research certainly will raise the likelihood of success. The one competency that was reported by 100% of respondents was communication. That includes all forms of communication as in verbal, written, and non-verbal, as well as the ability to discern the most appropriate channel for the needed communication, and taking the responsibility to make sure the message you have ‘sent’ has been received as intended. If it wasn’t, then make it right.

Do you think people can learn these competencies if they don’t have them now?

Absolutely. Some people may naturally possess higher levels of certain competencies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to develop them. Those who are not so strong can grow as well. That being said. I am a strong believer in knowing and operating from your strengths. We all have them, and we need each other to bring out the best of those strengths.

Remote work is not for everyone. Many factors come in to play, not the least of which is the simple desire that some people have to surround themselves with co-workers…and there is nothing wrong with that. Individuals considering remote work should do a serious self-evaluation. Ask themselves, ask those who know them well (and will be honest with them), ask supervisors…anyone that they trust, to provide feedback on how they would rate their ability in each of the top competencies revealed in the research. Ask for examples, for specifics. Use that input to determine a fit for remote work. It’s also important to keep in mind that some people have no choice but to work remote…I do believe that with the right support, they will survive, and even thrive.

The competencies that were identified in the research are as follows…listed in order of importance as reported by 250 remote workers.

  1. Communication
  2. Self-directed/motivated
  3. Trustworthy
  4. Disciplined
  5. Taking initiative/curious
  6. Adaptable/flexible
  7. High self-efficacy

A big thank you to Roberta for sharing her research and findings. Don’t forget to download the full report. If you would like to see what else Roberta is working on, you can follow her blog at www.ProbeandPonder.com. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and on her website.

Not All Remote Employees Have Trouble With Work/Life Balance

Remote employees are more successful balancing work and life if their managers do the same.

Sometimes the Company is the Problem


Photo by Jefferson Santos on Unsplash

Before my husband started working at his present place of employment, the interviewer highlighted the firm’s pro work/life balance stance. Unlike the majority of architecture firms, this one did not require long hours at the office. This sounded good, but we took it with a grain of salt.

Wanting to appear keen, my husband showed up early on his first day of work. Hardly anyone was there. Still wanting to appear keen, he attempted to stay late to work on his first project. The work day ends at 5:30, and at 5:45 someone came around to tell him that he might want to wrap it up because all of the lights in the building turn off at 6pm.

Everyone in that office knows how to operate a light switch. In theory, then, an employee could turn the lights back on and keep working. However, the senior partners were sending a clear message. You don’t have to go home, but we don’t want you to stay here. And people don’t.

When Is It Safe to Log Off for the Day?

I’ve worked remotely for eight years, and I’ll admit that I fight a tendency to work long hours. There have been some years when I’ve consistently worked past the time when I should have logged off for the day. Generally, this isn’t because I lacked the discipline to overcome this tendency. I also fight the tendency to buy too much yarn or eat cupcakes for dinner. I have plenty of experience overcoming these urges. Just as I can skip the cupcakes in favor of a vegetable curry, I have the ability to log off from my remote job and spend time with my family. The question that any worker–remote or not–has to answer is, when does it feel safe to log off of work?

For employees, work is a power arrangement. Our ability to pay rent, feed our kids, and buy necessities depends on a regular paycheck. Most of us are exquisitely sensitive to whether we are working “enough” to keep our jobs.

My husband’s company has an unambiguous way to demonstrate when its employees cross the ‘you’ve worked enough’ threshold. Managers in distributed teams have to find other ways to demonstrate when it’s safe to log off. Let’s consider a few possibilities.

How Leadership Can Communicate When It’s Safe to Log Off


Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Celebrate different schedules. One of the joys of a remote office is its flexibility. Alternative schedules shouldn’t be reserved solely for working mothers or part-time caregivers. Senior leaders could make a point of working an alternate schedule a few times a month, and share what they do during their flex time. Something as simple as sharing pictures from your walk on the company Slack channel demonstrates that employees can use flex time to enjoy life.

Turn the metaphorical lights off. In the remote workforce, no one can see you leave. If you are a people manager, consider making it a practice to tell your team when you leave for the day. Something as simple as ‘I’ve put in my eight hours, I’ll see you all tomorrow,’ communicates your definition of a work day.

Use your vacation days. Nothing says ‘it’s okay to stop working’ quite like demonstrating that you expect people to use–really use–their vacation days. How do you demonstrate this? My director makes a point of taking occasional half days, in addition to full weeks of vacation. He tells his team that we can call him on his personal cell if there’s an emergency, but otherwise he will be away from his computer. How often do you unplug from your job? Your team knows the answer to this question.

Craft a coverage plan for your team. My boss reminds us when we’re getting close to major holidays or the summer months, and asks us to get our vacation requests in so he can coordinate coverage. Our team coverage plans assume that we won’t contact the person on vacation. Consider how you can do the same on your team. If a member of your team were suddenly hospitalized, you would find a way to cover for him or her. Do the same for someone on vacation.

No company can solve all of its employees’ work/life balance problems. However, leadership CAN model a healthy flexibility, and clearly demonstrate that it’s safe to log off for the day. That way, employees can focus on building the cues they need to end work on time without worrying that doing so will jeopardize their jobs. This leads to better outcomes for both the company and the employee.

Can you think of other ways distributed companies can demonstrate livable hours? I would love to hear about it in the comments.