In which I reflect on hearing bad news

I have been thinking a lot about how we communicate bad news, prompted in part by the NHS Direct stories over this weekend.

People always claim to be able to remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. For an earlier generation it was where they heard Chamberlain declare that our country was at war with Germany. Life-changing, history-making news in each case. For many in the public service the months since the formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government have provided new and unwelcome announcements that will change their lives too. Each person affected will, I am sure, remember exactly where they were when they heard the news.

Of course we all deal with bad news in different ways and find our own ways of coping with it. But a golden rule that I learnt from my primary school Headteacher was to always treat others as I would want to be treated. Sadly, the government, its hangers-on and its supporters seem to have been away from school the day that lesson was taught.

A succession of organisations have heard about their abolition barely ahead of the news being leaked to reliable journalists who seem to do most of their work slavishly repeating what they’ve been told or what they read in government news releases. Many thousands of decent hard-working public servants have heard in the media that their jobs are to go. Just think about that for just one moment and try to imagine how that feels.

From a clear blue sky you find the future that you planned and worked for has been taken away. No consultation. No debate. it’s suddenly over. Not only that your family hears this news from the media first too. You have no chance to prepare the way, no possibility of softening the blow by at least telling them yourself first. Instead you get a call from your worried mother asking what’s going on. Or you have to comfort and reassure children who, for the first time, begin to understand how fragile the world really is.

I am not, of course, arguing that change in public services is not necessary. I promised that this would not turn into a political blog and I mean to keep to that. But what I am saying is that surely a test of any competent employer is how they communicate bad news. While the government may not like it, it is inescapably true that it is, in practice, the final employer of all the public servants now finding themselves heading towards redundancy.

So in the weeks, months and years ahead could I suggest that instead of communicating to public servants via the media ministers have the good grace and good manners to tell affected employees the bad news first.


About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
This entry was posted in bad news, Coalition, Public sector, Public service, Redundancy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In which I reflect on hearing bad news

  1. kl says:

    This is very true. My husband is employed (not for much longer) at the Audit Commission and I worked there too until a couple of years ago. We couldn’t believe that the newspapers and tv news simply repeated the incorrect (can you libel an organisation?) statements put out by CLG in its statement abolishing the Commission.

    To hear the news an hour or two before it went national was one things but for noone to stand up for the 2,000 professional and dedicated workers in the Commission’s defence within those who should know better was painful.

  2. notquiteonthebus says:

    Hearing news in this way is dreadful and gives no time to prepare. However, I work in the voluntary sector and for the past year we have had a consultancy agency working with the organisation on internal re-structuring – streamlining of staff numbers and responsibilities. This has also been dreadful – incredibly de-skilling and stress inducing. We have all been coerced into going along with proposals as to argue against them has been presented by the CEO and the agency as a failure to engage with the need for change – not ‘being on the bus’ – hence my user name.

    We are now at the point where redundancies are being made and many staff are pooled for the remaining jobs. I am anticipating being given my redundancy notice by the end of next week as I have no hope of getting the job I have been pooled for. I find the situation of being pitted against colleagues extremely upsetting. I have been here nearly ten years and so have many of the people I am now in competition with.

    My redundancy pay will be in line with other voluntary sector payouts – so not great. The great irony is that this organisation advocates for equality and protecting family incomes – I have even written in a professional capacity against the spending cuts that are to come whilst knowing that I am a victim (and actually I do feel like I am a victim) myself. The consultants keep saying to see it as an opportunity – but where are the opportunities going to be when the jobs market is increasing flooded by people like you and me being cut from public and voluntary bodies?

    And it is just as hard to protect your children from this convoluted process as the shock of hearing it in the news. My son has had to live with my ups and downs for a year and although I have tried to not let my concerns creep into family time, I would have to be super-human to have been able to achieve that. Especially as I was called in from my annual leave to be issued with my advance warning of ‘at-risk’ status.

    • Thank you for reading the blog and writing such a heart-felt comment. We were spared pooling as the entire function is going but it would have been a hard process. Like you say suddenly you are competing against people who are friends not just work colleagues. The results are bad for the unsuccessful but ‘survivors’ do not emerge unscathed either.

      I have a colleague who is brilliant at turning everything into an opportunity and I’m sure they will be a millionaire this time next year. What I’ve noticed about this person is that they translate what they are good at or interested in into terms that might mean something to someone with a problem that they can solve. It’s exhausting to watch but incredibly impressive all the same. I supppose I’m hoping that people might be able to see past my label as a ‘public sector waste of space’ and instead see what I can offer (once I’m clear what that might be).

      You make an excellent point about family and children in particular. Convoluted process can stretch on for ever – or seem to – in their quest for fairness etc.. But all the time in your situation you are trying to keep things on as even a keel as you can. We asked people how they wanted to be kept involved over holiday periods but there’s no easy answer particularly when, like the NHS Direct or the Audit Commission announcements, reports suddenly appear.

      I hope you all get through this ok and that you find the blog useful, I thought sharing what’s going on might be helpful.

      Best wishes


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