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MANAGING THE OFFICE

How to share bad news with your staff

There are times when changes at the practice affect the entire staff—and, unfortunately, not all changes are positive.

The practice may be relocating, and the new location could involve an unrealistic commute for some staff members. Or the practice may be merging with another practice, which will result in layoffs. Or the practice may be closing, for any number of reasons.

These are only a few examples. No matter the scenario, it is your responsibility, as manager, to share information with your staff, including information that has the potential to negatively impact their jobs and their lives.

Authorization essential

Before you speak with staff, you must get authorization from the practice’s managing physician.

Let the physician know that you plan to discuss the upcoming changes with staff, and provide an overview of what you intend to say. Ask if this approach meets with her or his approval. Also ask if s/he recommends you include any additional information.

What if the physician says you should hold off talking to staff until a later date?

In this case, explain why staff should be told now. Reasons may include rumors that have started circulating or a sense among staff that “something’s up.” In addition, you may feel uncomfortable withholding information, and it may be impacting the way you do your job, including how you relate to staff. Indeed, the rumors or feelings of unease could be a result of your behavior.

Don’t be afraid to share any of these details with your physician; it doesn’t make you appear less professional. If necessary, also provide context. Explain that you are a close team, who know each other well, and you want to maintain a good rapport with people who have contributed so much to the practice.

Timing matters

Ideally, you want to provide staff with as much notice as possible. However, this has to be balanced with the need to keep the practice running smoothly.

Telling staff on February 1, for example, that Dr. Jones has decided to retire at the end of the year and close the practice doesn’t do anyone any good.

Similarly, providing a two-week notice for such a monumental change will not be received well.

Try to find a balance that makes sense. For example, if the practice has signed a lease for office space in a building currently under construction, let staff know the lease has been signed and the anticipated move date.

And speaking of timing, if possible, hold the meeting with staff on a Friday afternoon. This gives people time to digest the information over the weekend, and it gives you a break after delivering the news. Don’t underestimate the stress this conversation may cause you. Delivering bad news to staff is one of the most difficult management tasks.

Directness counts

When meeting with staff, get right to the point. “We’re meeting today because a decision has been made to…” fill in the blank.

When presenting this information, opt for a position of strength without alienating people. For example, if everyone is sitting, you may want to stand while delivering the initial news, and then sit down as you share details.

Take note of your body language and facial expressions as you deliver the news to staff. Try not to appear tense. Don’t frown, scowl or wring your hands. Maintain a pleasant demeanor. Don’t forget to make eye contact with staff to let them know you are sincere, and to gauge their reactions.

Offer an explanation

Provide details that have led to the decision. Depending on the circumstances, information might include:

“We’ve outgrown our current office space.”

“The practice believes there is more opportunity for growth if we move to ABC town.”

“Changes in health care have put a strain on the practice and merging with XYZ practice puts us in a better position for the future.”

“Dr. Jones has decided to take early retirement.”

Don’t agree or disagree with the decision, even if asked. Instead, acknowledge that “change is difficult,” while pointing out that the practice is interested in making the transition as easy as possible for everyone.

Next steps

After this, you should explain what “transition” means.

If staff members will lose their jobs, how much severance will be provided? Will outplacement/job search services be made available?

If staff members are required to commute a greater distance because of a move, will the practice reimburse for additional travel? If the new commute is too great a distance for some people, will those people qualify for severance?

When will the change take place? If you don’t have an exact date, what is the target date? Note: If it’s only a target date, make sure you tell staff that the date is subject to change.

What will happen between now and the date the change is effective? For example, if the practice is closing, what is expected of staff? Similarly, if the practice is moving or merging, will staff have new responsibilities related to the move or merger?

Answers to these and similar questions should be obtained from the managing physician prior to your staff meeting so that you can share as much information as possible about the changes.

Recognize that people will still have questions. Allow for a few questions during the meeting, and do your best to answer them. Then, let staff members know that as you have more information you will share it with them.

Recap

At the end of the meeting, briefly recap what was shared. “Just to recap, the practice will be closing at the end of next month. This means…”

Be sure to include all essential information in your recap. This is necessary because people tend to miss some important details when taken by surprise.

End the meeting by thanking staff for their support and dedication to the practice. Let them know you are available to answer questions during the transition and to help however you can.

Moving forward

After the meeting, follow up in writing with staff. This will answer questions staff may have, and give them a document they can reference.

In the memo or email, basically reiterate what you’ve already said. Share the news, provide an explanation as to why the change is taking place, and spell out what it means in specific terms. Once again, thank staff for their service and offer your assistance.

After you have taken these steps, a path has been forged—and you, along with everyone else, can begin to move forward.


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