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Practice Management

Sharing Bad News with the Office

By Wendy Werner

No one likes to deliver bad news. But things happen, and when they do it’s important to let those around you know. In your law office, failing to share bad news at the appropriate time can lead to rumor and innuendo, as well as loss of morale and productivity in the practice. Here’s some guidance to help, if you find yourself in the position of sharing something that may feel like a loss.

Controlling the Message

Personal bad news is different from business bad news, although the first can potentially impact the second. When sharing bad news concerning an employee or colleague, remember the personal relationship and the well-being of the parties involved come first.

If you have to share news about an illness, an injury or a death, bring everyone together. You want to have some control over how the information is shared with everyone in your organization and the best way to do that is simultaneously.

  1. Prepare an introduction. Start with the fact that you have difficult news to share and that is why you’ve brought everyone together. Identify the party, then share the facts with as little drama as possible.
  2. If the news is that the individual will not be in the office for a period of time, give as much information as you currently have available. If it means work must be shared by others, tell people that you will approach them individually to discuss how this will be done, or that you will gather the relevant parties for a group conversation.
  3. Tell everyone that you will update them as you have more information.
  4. If you have information about how the individual or family would like to be contacted, or not contacted, by his or her peers, share this as well.
  5. If the firm is planning to do something specific on behalf of your employee or colleague, share this too.
  6. Ask for questions from your group and provide any and all information that you are comfortable sharing.
  7. If you have information from the family about how they would like this news to be shared, or not shared outside of this group, provide that as well.

If you are the person with the difficult situation, it may make sense for someone else to share the information with the office. If you are dealing with an illness or family difficulty, your highest priority is to take care of yourself or your loved one.

If the bad news is about the business, first determine who in the organization needs to know. While sharing the information with all parties simultaneously might give you greater control over the message and its impact, it may also cause unnecessary alarm. Carefully think through what needs to be shared and when. Also, think through your options for mitigating the loss. Make it clear that you have a plan. If you need the cooperation of others, enlist them in driving toward the solution.

The book “Strengths Based Leadership” covers how Gallop organization researchers asked 10,000 followers what influential leaders provided in their lives. They identified four basic needs of followers:

  1. Trust
  2. Compassion
  3. Stability
  4. Hope

Think long and hard about how your message will impact people, and keep these four needs in mind when delivering bad news. The information you share will shape how people — staff, colleagues, clients, vendors — view your stability as an organization in the present, as well as their hopes for the future.

Illustration ©ImageZoo.

Categories: Communications Skills, Law Firm People Management
Originally published June 4, 2015
Last updated September 9, 2020
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Wendy Werner

Wendy Werner was an acclaimed photographer, a sought-after career strategist and social justice advocate. A longtime career coach and practice management consultant at Werner Associates, Wendy most recently served as ArchCity Defenders’ founding board chair, stewarding the organization for over 12 years as it became an established force for justice in the St. Louis region. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and served on several ABA Law Practice Division boards, including as chair of the Publishing Board. Wendy died at her home in Saint Louis on January 3, 2022, after a long battle with cancer. She was 69.


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