From The Rock

Breaking bad… News, that is.

By | March 07, 2013

The other day, an interesting email came across my inbox. For privacy purposes, I’ve removed names:

Subject: [Name of Person] Resignation

To Whom It May Concern: [Name], our COO, has resigned.  Please erase her contact information. We will let you know when we have found a replacement COO.

[Name], Executive Assistant

When I read this, I cringed a bit, and one of my initial thoughts was, “Well, that didn’t end on a good note, did it? Ouch!” As it turns out, I already knew about the resignation, as the former COO was a contact of mine. I was likely on this list simply because my contact information was included in her contacts list in Outlook. However, given this insight, I knew there was more than a month to plan how to communicate her resignation to key stakeholders and the public – and in what order.

Whether intended or not, the communication that I received came across as a cold afterthought that didn’t give any insight into next steps, who to contact in the meantime should we have a need to communicate with the organization or to use as an opportunity to pull in positive information about the organization.

Whether the relationship between this person and the organization ended on a good or bad note, the image conveyed should always be positive. So, here’s my 2 cents on breaking “bad” news:

  • Take time to plan a response to the situation and develop a well-thought-out letter or email for key stakeholders.
  • Remember the correct order in which you should make this announcement:internal publics (employees, board members/advisors, donors and volunteers, etc.), then external publics (media, vendors, general audiences)
  • Remember that emails get forwarded and every email is an opportunity to communicate an important message about your business/organization – your mission, a new program – bright, new plans on the horizon
  • Rarely is it advisable to send an announcement that gives an inkling of thought that the resignation ended on bad terms. Even if there was a negative end to a relationship, it’s good to stay above board in all communication. Again, focus on positive language. Announcements should be from an upper-level executive, such as the CEO, rather than an assistant or office manager.

It is never desirable to lose a key team member like a COO or to have to share bad news with your stakeholders. But when it does happen, use it as an opportunity to share other great things, not just close a chapter in your HR history book.