When it comes to breaking bad news about the company’s finances or changes to employees’ pay and benefits, you have to speak the right language: transparent, empathetic and knowledgeable.

2nd March 2021

Even if a decision only affects a small cohort of staff directly, it might feel like a significant change in terms of the organisation’s history.


Few companies’ corporate finances have given their boards of directors much to smile about over the past 12 months. Even if you’ve found a way to steady the financial ship, it may have come at a cost to employees’ purses.

In a CIPD survey of 2,000 employers mid-pandemic, almost a fifth had reduced salaries, around a quarter cut bonuses and a third froze or delayed pay increases.

When jobs are marketed with good employee benefits – pension, holiday entitlement, flexible working – news about potentially detrimental changes to those perks is going to make employees bristle. It becomes particularly complex and problematic when employees are on different heritage schemes.

At the Bank of England, for example, your pension entitlement will depend on when you joined.

“That makes it difficult to craft a universal message when there’s a change,” says Sian Jones, head of internal communication.

“You have to manage employees’ expectations around what is going to happen in the future. When you have a pensions review coming up, employees know it is unlikely to result in an improvement to the benefits, so you can’t be anything but open and transparent.”

Communicate reasons clearly

With other benefits, Sian admits the comms team has had its fingers burned once or twice.

“There have been occasions when we announced specific changes to our broader package, and people felt we weren’t transparent enough. Even if a decision only affects a small cohort of staff directly, it might feel like a significant change in terms of the organisation’s history.”

In 2019, the Bank announced it was selling its sports club in Roehampton – owned by the Bank for more than 100 years, but, in the 21st century, perhaps not a relevant asset to a modern financial institution.

Sian’s team and senior leaders underestimated how colleagues would respond emotionally.

“People felt we hadn’t properly explained the reasons for selling it. We acquired the club in a different period when it was common for banks to have a sports club – but it’s no longer within the Bank’s remit or core purpose. We shouldn’t be running a leisure facility. We didn’t communicate that point clearly enough.

“About 10 per cent of employees were members and they felt they were losing something that was very important to them. Even though there was a minority with an interest, they were understandably vocal.”

It was a big lesson, reflects Sian. “Senior leaders took notice. It was a moment where they realised the importance of being factual and open and talking honestly.”

When the comms team saw the initial report hadn’t landed well, internal social media was quickly used to clarify points. Senior leaders posted messages talking about the background of the club, and employees who were club members – those affected by the sale – were given the opportunity to blog.

“The bank involved them in the decision and gave them an opportunity to explain why they were upset, and that took some of the heat out of it,” says Sian. “But we know we would have got a better reaction if we had been more transparent from the off.”

Be frank about finance

Likewise, when the bigger numbers – the company’s revenues, profits and a glossary of other bewildering terms – have plummeted, you have to be honest and face it.

When the bottom line has gone south, the important thing is that your leaders don’t hide, says Jacey Lamerton, senior editor and writer at scarlettabbott.

“This is the point where they earn their salaries,” she says. “When times are tough, leaders need to turn up the talking, be visible, tell the truth and take people with them in whatever happens next. The business is probably already working hard to turn around the poor results, so make sure leaders share that part of the story.

“There is a temptation to spin any positive elements and hide behind them, but if you lie or put too much emphasis on the positives, you will get found out. Trust takes years to build up – and seconds to destroy. Look at how politicians are viewed when they are seen to spin the figures. You don’t want to be dealing with a culture of mistrust on top of the financial results.”

Delivering bad news about the company’s finances or, indeed, employees’ individual remuneration is challenging at any time, but it can feel like a kick in the teeth after the difficulties of the past year.

Sian reflects: “We are so grateful for the way people have worked throughout Covid-19, and we are thinking constantly about how we can alleviate the pressure they are under.

“When you usually rely on face-to-face comms, you have to remember doing it virtually is not the same when you’re dealing with something emotive. You need to be even more careful about any messaging that is going to have a negative impact potentially on people’s morale and wellbeing.”

Even if a decision only affects a small cohort of staff directly, it might feel like a significant change in terms of the organisation’s history.


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