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How does it feel to deliver bad news at work?

Monday 30 July 2012

Workplace experts Acas have published a new study into how employees feel about delivering news of redundancies and redeployment to their colleagues. 

The study is the first of its kind to compare experiences across the public and private sector and was carried out by Dr Ian Ashman from the Institute for Research into Organisation, Work and Employment at the University of Central Lancashire's Business School on behalf of Acas.

Dr Ashman said:

"With business change and downsizing now part of the fabric of the workplace, many employees find themselves having to break bad news to colleagues. And in many cases envoys might be telling people they have worked with for many years that they are going to be made redundant or will have to be redeployed."

An 'envoy,' is the term used to describe the person - usually a line manager or HR manager - who delivers news to others when an organisation is downsizing.

John Taylor, Acas Chief Executive, said:

"The research highlights some important lessons for employers going through organisational change. Redundancy is very difficult for all those involved. This research focuses on envoys specifically and there needs to be a greater appreciation of the emotional toll it can take on those at the sharp end of breaking bad news.

"Ideally, they should have previous experience and at the very least they should be supported in how best to deal with the situation, including being given a thorough briefing in why redundancy or redeployment is necessary."

The study found that:

  • envoys from the public and private sector had similar attitudes towards the role and behaved in similar ways regarding the duties involved
  • they considered the role the most emotionally demanding thing they had undertaken in their working lives
  • they work very hard to ensure they do a professional job of breaking the news, often involving long hours and emotional stress which can impact on their personal lives
  • the closer the relationship the envoy has with those facing redundancy, the more difficult the process is for them, particularly if they still have to work with those affected for some time to come
  • envoys coped with the role in different ways, often distancing themselves from the situation by focusing on the process involved which reduced their sense of personal responsibility for the situation.

The study also found that experiences in the private and public sectors varied. Envoys in the private sector were more likely to be involved in the decision making process around downsizing which gave them a greater sense of ownership. This helped them deal with the more difficult aspect of the role. In contrast public sector envoys were less likely to be involved, and though they may understand the reasons behind decisions, they had less sense of ownership and buy in regarding decisions and the procedures for implementing any job losses.

Dr Ashman added:

"Given the extent of change taking place in the private sector, these envoys had more personal experience of making people redundant and were therefore more comfortable and confident in carrying out the job with more mechanisms in place to support them."

Envoys in the public sector also reported feeling more isolated, and media coverage and political influences made it more difficult to communicate downsizing messages. This hampered the ability of public sector envoys to do their job.

John Taylor added:

"Acas has considered the research findings carefully and produced practical guidance for employers which focuses on the factors employers need to consider to ensure that the 'envoy' role receives the support it needs. This includes how to select the right person for the job based on our wider experiences and the research findings."

Notes for editors

  1. Acas' aim is to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It provides information, advice, training and a range of services working with employers and employees to prevent or resolve problems and improve performance. Acas is an independent and impartial statutory body governed by a council made up of members from business, trade unions, academia and the law.
  2. Dr Ian Ashman is from the Institute for Research into Organisation, Work and Employment at the University of Central Lancashire.
  3. The research, pdf icon Downsizing envoys: A public/private sector comparison [278kb] involved interviews with fifty envoys drawn from nine public sector organisations and eight private sector organisations and included two consultants who had experience of downsizing in small and micro-organisations. Interviews took place with public sector envoys between January and March 2011 and in the private sector between October 2011 and April 2012.
  4. An earlier study published by Acas and undertaken by Dr Ashman explored the role of envoys in the public sector pdf icon ‘The nature of bad news infects the teller’: The experiences of envoys in the face to face delivery of downsizing initiatives in UK public sector organisations [288kb]
  5. The new Acas guidance for employers on the role of the envoy can be found on the Acas website - Redundancy handling
  6. The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has developed an enviable reputation as an institution that innovates, evolving its course portfolio to over 500 undergraduate programmes and 180 postgraduate courses. The University has an established research reputation within the areas of Business, Health, Humanities and Science. In the recent Research Assessment Exercise, all 17 subject areas submitted were rated as containing research of international excellence while 11 areas were assessed to be undertaking research which is world-leading. In 2012 UCLan was awarded four stars in the QS Stars Development Road Map, indicating a University that is highly international with excellence in both research and teaching.  UCLan has approximately 35,000 students and indirectly contributes close to £300 million into the regional economy every year. Over the past five years UCLan has invested more than £100 million on new buildings and facilities to support teaching, learning and leisure activities.

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