Bad news: It’s not fine wine

Bad news doesn’t get better with time, fine wine it is not

Nobody likes to hear bad news, myself included. What really gets me though is when I find out the bad news hours or days after the event occurred. I’ve yet to encounter a bad situation made better with time. Within a large organization I can understand the temptation to hold on to the bad news and delay, or avoid, being the bearer of bad news. If this is a chronic situation within your organization, leadership needs to really examine how it supports or addresses bad news, mistakes, and other business issues. There is a fine line between maintaining organizational discipline and a culture of accountability, and inviting people to sit on bad news because they know that being the messenger may be a high-risk proposition with on the job repercussions.

Organizations should provide very clear guidance on this matter and ensure that there is a clear understanding of the repercussions of not delivering bad news promptly. Bad news, critical business problems, and egregious mistakes are exactly the types of issues that need to get in front of senior leadership as quickly as possible. By getting the issue to leadership promptly there is a chance to either correct the issue before it mushrooms into something larger, begin addressing the inevitable fallout of the issue before it hits the press, or begin understanding the lessons learned associated with the issue so that it doesn’t occur again. Delaying recognition of the problem only ensures that it will get worse.

Reaching above your pay grade and making decisions in the hope that your corrective action will avert bad news coming to light is also an issue. I am a big believer in ensuring that a proper level of delegation occurs and that to the degree possible, employees across an organization feel empowered to make decisions. However, I think anytime the thought goes through your head, “I wonder what the boss would say about X,” it is probably a good time to go talk to the boss. The first clue that you needed to talk to them should be that you aren’t 100% sure that you want to go do it. That is a key indicator that should almost always result in walking down the hall and having that difficult discussion. Going out on a limb to make a decision based more on your desire not to have senior management discover the issue than on your being the appropriate decision maker is going to get you in trouble eventually and should be avoided at all costs.

The right way to handle an issue once you’ve identified it as deserving of senior managements attention is to get the issue in front of management immediately. Depending on the type of issue this may be addressed in many different ways; my focus in this post is on the timing. The only caveat I will provide to the advice above is if the bad news involves illegality or other criminal issues. Here you may want to be a bit more cautious, but know that in the US legal protection is available. Consult a lawyer to better understand the implications of your actions. For the rest of the issues I am a believer in providing bad news in person if possible, by phone if its not, and only as a last resort via e-mail. It is perfectly acceptable to follow up with an e-mail after an in person visit or phone call if you feel you need a record of the situation. In conclusion remember—bad news isn’t like fine wine—it doesn’t get better with age.

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