One candidate you’re trying to place needs
to improve her hygiene. Another didn’t get a position he was banking on to end months of unemployment. And a client has asked you to fill a position at a salary that is well below market rate.
Being a staffing professional means delivering bad news — while maintaining good relationships with the candidates and clients who hear it.
Facing the situation head-on is crucial. With candidates, “we have to communicate about the difficult areas if we’re going to be able to place them in a job,” Bruno said. The same goes for filling positions for clients.
These conversations can be uncomfortable. However, with preparation and practice, they can become a powerful tool that will help you be more successful. Experts on communication and staffing offer these tips for delivering bad news:
Choose the setting carefully. An in-person meeting is usually best, followed by a phone conversation. Find a location for the conversation where the person won’t feel exposed. “Do it in private, with no interruptions,” said Donna Flagg, author of “Surviving Dreaded Conversations.”
Plan and practice. Go into the conversation knowing what points you need to make. Be prepared to change these points depending on the flow of conversation. Rehearse by having a colleague say what you think (or are afraid) the other person will say. Planning ahead can help so you don’t derail your conversation later.
Get the pacing right. Experts neither recommend blurting out all the bad news at once nor spending five minutes making small talk before telling an applicant that he or she didn’t get the job.
Exactly how to do this will depend on the specific situation.
Bruno starts difficult conversations with words that signal the bad news, such as “unfortunately” or “I’m sorry to tell you.”
“I let them down immediately, but then I pick them right up,” she said. She does this by moving on to a more positive spin: The job wasn’t a good fit anyway and the candidate will be happier with a different placement.
Another way to begin a bad-news conversation is to acknowledge what the other person wants, Gallagher said. If you’re telling a client his or her price range for a position is too low, you could say, “Of course, everyone is trying to save money.”
You can also begin by giving the person some context, Gallagher said: “Let me walk you through the parameters that we normally see for hiring a temporary rocket scientist. We normally see a range of $75 to $100 per hour. Your range is a little low.”
Use facts to make your case. In some cases, you may not have many facts: The client chose a different candidate and you don’t know why. At other times, such as when a client’s salary range is unrealistic, using data is helpful.
“The more detail you give them, the better,” Gallagher said.
It’s important for the detail to be factual, not emotional. If a client has been let go from a job for having a bad attitude, for example, using that phrase will probably lead them to blame their boss or co-workers. Instead, keep words like “bad” out of the conversation, and say something like, “When you say you’re too experienced to be making photocopies, here’s how people react.”
Choose words that show empathy. Gallagher suggests the phrase “well, of course” to begin a response because “the right words will often follow.” If you’re telling a client the salary range for a job is too low, you could say, “Well, of course you’re trying to save money.”
If someone is complaining about a situation, a phrase like “Wow, that was a problem” can be a good way to start your reply, he added.
To introduce a criticism, try saying, “If I were in your shoes I would want to know…,” said Cheyene Haase, owner of BC Management Inc., an executive search firm in Huntington Beach, Calif. that specializes in business continuity careers.
If you’re trying to get a worker to behave differently, Gallagher said, start the conversation “in a safe place.” This could mean asking the worker to describe how she does a particular task or asking in general how things are going.
Finally, phrases like “I can tell this didn’t work out the way you wanted” and “no one likes it when the boss complains about their work” can smooth the way for the rest of the conversation. People are more likely to change their behavior if they’re feeling positive than if they’re feeling threatened.
Show that you can help. In staffing, you are often delivering a message from someone else, such as telling a client a candidate took another job or telling a candidate he wasn’t chosen.
If a client says the worker has a bad attitude and must leave that day, Bruno said, “it’s not like you’ve got time to coddle them.” But you can still make clear that you’re on the worker’s team: “I will say, ‘The client called, and they want us to replace you. They gave me some good input that I think is really going to help you in the next job I place you,’” Bruno said.
If a client gives negative feedback about a candidate after an interview, Bruno shares the responsibility: “I more or less make it sound like I should have done a better job coaching, but I’m letting them know what they did wrong.”
Guide your listener to a conclusion. This is more effective than telling your listener what to do.
Bruno, for example, had a candidate for positions at law firms whose tongue piercing was so large that it affected her speech. Instead of telling her to remove it, Bruno asked, “How fond are you of your tongue piercing?” She explained that she had some great firms that would hire her based on her skills, but they were conservative workplaces where her piercing would not be accepted. With the piercing, she could work at firms that paid less. “Let the decision be theirs,” Bruno said.
Gallagher recommends approaching discussions of performance problems with an eye toward fixing the problem together: “Most people are able to assemble 50 widgets an hour and you assemble 14. What do you think the issue might be?”
“You’re having a troubleshooting discussion between two reasonable people that gives you your very best chance to change it,” Gallagher said. “The problem gets solved when the answer comes out of their mouth, not yours.”
Even with all this preparation, delivering bad news isn’t easy.
“It’s honestly the worst part of my job,” Haase said. “But people do tend to appreciate it.”
And that’s the goal: to deliver the bad news in a way that ultimately helps the person hearing it.
“If you take out all the noise, there is a core piece of information that the other person needs to know,” Flagg said.
A version of this post was published Jan. 13, 2012.