what to say when your manager calls with bad news

A reader writes:

I’m a journalist working at a media company, and my industry has been really hard-hit by the coronavirus. A few weeks ago, management announced company-wide pay cuts, and some of our staff was furloughed. At the time, we were told that layoffs weren’t being considered.

Fast forward to today, when I learned that a colleague I worked closely with and more in the company had lost their jobs. We did not receive a company-wide email about layoffs; my manager called all of his direct reports personally to deliver the news about our colleague. When a manager calls with bad news, such as a layoff, what’s the best way to respond? At the time, I treated it like a courtesy call, expressed sadness that I lost a colleague and thanked my manager for the information. But as I anticipate more bad-news phone calls to come, should I be using this as an opportunity to ask questions or do something differently? After the company cut pay, my manager called me to check-in, and I responded similarly.

For context, I’m a 2019 grad a year into my first full-time job. I know this is an awful time for everyone, but it’s especially terrifying to go through something like this while I’m still in an entry-level position and learning office norms. I have a good rapport with my manager, and everyone on my team communicates pretty casually. These bad-news calls are hard to hear and really awkward! I’m just not sure if the awkwardness comes because my manager is delivering bad news, or if I’m handling the calls incorrectly and should be doing something more.

It probably just feels awkward because it’s an inherently awkward call. (They’re awkward to make too!)

It sounds like you’re handling it just fine. To respond to news like a layoff, all you really have to do is say, “Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that.” And when you’re wrapping up: “Well, thank you for telling me.”

But if you have questions, you can ask those too. Things that are generally okay to say when you’re getting a call with this type of bad news:

  • “Is there anything you can share about logistics, like their last day and who will be covering their work?”
  • “I’d been working with Jane on X. Is there someone else I should coordinate with going forward?”
  • “I have some experience with Y and could help out there if you need me to.” (Only offer this if you sincerely want to.)
  • “I know there might not be anything else you can share at this point, but has there been any discussion about cuts on the editorial team?” (You shouldn’t put a ton of weight on an answer like “no, those jobs are safe” — both because things can change in situations like these and because companies often won’t confirm layoffs until they’re actually happening — but you can still sometimes get useful insights by asking the question.)

If the call is to let you know your pay is being cut, that’s quite different! In that case, it’s reasonable to ask things like, “Do we expect the previous salaries to be reinstated within a specific timeframe?” and “Is there a set time we plan to revisit this?”

But it sounds like you’re handling the calls fine!

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. glitter writer*

    From one journalist to another, I’m really sorry. It’s a bloodbath out there right now.

    1. Another Anon Journo*

      Another journalist chiming in here, just to offer sympathy to you both. Hang in there!

    2. Bunny*

      Yet another journalist, with 30 years in. Anyone want to form a support group?

      This may be the most bizarre time for the business I’ve ever seen. My ratings across platforms are the highest they’ve ever been*, but my advertisers can’t spend.

      Keep working. This is important work. Reach out to your affected colleagues. That’s important. News is a small world, and chances are we’ll be working together again.

      My union is saving my job this time around, despite the 2-week furlough I’m about to take. It had to be negotiated.

      *I’d rather have lower ratings and no pandemic

    3. Yet another journo*


      It’s so brutal out there, and so hard to keep doing our jobs, which currently involve covering a bunch of death and economic hardship, while also knowing our own employment is precarious.

      Especially when so much self care advice right now is about limiting media consumption, which we literally cannot do.

      Hang in there, folks.

  2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I’d also want to know what the for-public-consumption wording should be. Has there been a public announcement?
    What should you say if you get calls from former colleagues, reference checkers, members of the public, members of the press (hah, irony)?

  3. LGC*

    You’re doing fine!

    One thing that’s helped me is to focus on logistics and ways I can make myself useful. It makes me feel like I’m doing something, and it takes care of any loose ends.

  4. FaintlyMacabre*

    It’s also natural to need time to process! Maybe you feel as a journalist you should be good at asking follow up questions, but there is nothing wrong with getting a call with bad news, taking time to absorb the information, and then calling back later if you have questions.

    1. Sled Dog Mama*

      Yes! remember that when you go into a situation where you are expected to ask follow-up questions you’ve had time to research and prepare. No so much with the manager calls to tell you something. Take a little bit of time to absorb information and prepare those questions.

  5. selena*

    Sorry to hear you are in that position OP.
    I hope you keep your job and your colleague gets to move on to something nice.

  6. rayray*

    It’s such a tough time right now. These situations can definitely be awkward, especially if you’re caught a little off guard. I think you handed it as well as you could. Your managers probably don’t like making the calls, but do so to keep people in the loop. I think it’s enough to acknowledge the situation and to express concern for the situation. Alison’s suggestions are very helpful. Maintain kindness and keep questions brief and on point.

    This reminds me of a situation at a former job. I had a co-worker get let go and no one even mentioned it to me. She and I worked the same position so our work was split between us doing the same things. She was let go on a Friday, and it was the middle of the next week when she hadn’t come in. I wasn’t sure if she was sick or staying home with her kids. I didn’t think too much of it because she frequently stayed home with the kids. I usually got some sort of notice, but not always. I would just work on what I could without her help. Then, I just had a manager pull me in and we were just talking and it was just oh so casual “Jane is no longer working here….”

    That place had terrible management and communication. Absolutely terrible.

  7. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    > bad news, such as a layoff or pay cut, what’s the best way to respond?

    I may be out of line but I feel like you are asking about two different things here, and may have conflated them (?)

    A call from a boss to tell you that person X (but not yourself) has been laid off due to the company situation… yeah, I’d respond as suggested, like “thanks for letting me/us know”, and any relevant questions.

    With a pay cut… I wouldn’t be so much with the “thanks for letting me know” if it was my own pay cut but rather want to know the circumstances, will the previous salary be reinstated at some point, etc.

    I’m presuming the bad news of a layoff is your boss communicating your colleague being laid off, but the pay cut being related to yourself. And those ought to be handled differently.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh my goodness, yes, and I skipped right over that. I’m going to edit the question so it doesn’t sound like I’m suggesting “thank you!” for a paycut and add in a bit at the end about responding to that news.

      1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

        Yeah I think OP’s question was really about ‘how to respond to bad news from my boss *that affects other people* (but not me)’ but then I’m not sure how the original text about “pay cuts” fits in.

        Maybe pay is being cut across the ‘Y’ organization (but doesn’t affect OP) and the boss wasn’t supposed to share that… but that’s just speculation at this point!

  8. Mbarr*

    If it was me, I’d be tempted to do the generic, “I’m sorry that colleague X is gone. Thanks for letting me know.” I’m worried that some of the follow-up questions suggested above gloss over the bad news and make you sound callous.

    Like, it might come across as, “Oh? Fergus is gone? Damn, who’s going to help me out with Project Y?” Yes, Project Y is a valid concern, but these phone calls are probably tough for your manager too. I’d do the generic, “thanks for letting me know” message first, then a few hours or the next day, ask how to workaround the coworker’s absence. After all, the manager might not have had time to plan for Fergus’ departure either.

  9. learnedthehardway*

    Sounds like your response has been very professional. I agree with others who have suggested that an acknowledgement of the news and expression of commiseration with the laid off person is a good idea. If you are working on projects with the person who was laid off, it would be okay to ask about the logistics and who you should report to on that project.

    I would save questions for other issues – like whether your team / role will be affected – for another time, however.

    Depending on what your relationship is like with your manager, and if your manager is generally a caring kind of individual, it might be okay to acknowledge that this must be very difficult for them, too. I wouldn’t overdo it, though.

  10. LPUK*

    The most awkward times I had were with the manager at a particular company who told me, and the others in my team BEFORE he told the people affected, not once but twice. The first time, I received a call from my boss with a request to meet him downstairs in a conference room to discuss a current project, only to find him there with HR to explain that Geoff and John weren’t working out and that he was going to let them go, but to keep it quiet because they didn’t know yet. I had to go upstairs to my office which was between the two people involved, sit there and wait for their phones to go, for them each to pop their head in and say ‘ I’ll be downstairs with Dave if anyone wants me’ and then… not come back. Twice in one afternoon, with me trying not to make eye-contact with the other three members of my team who I was sure had had the same message as me. 6 months later, the same boss waited until myself and a colleague were in a taxi going back to the airport to say ‘Mary’s not working out. I’m going to let her know tomorrow, so don’t say anything’. We were both friends with Mary. Even now, twenty years later, I cant see any possible reason to tell the colleagues of the person you are going to fire before you tell them.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      > Even now, twenty years later, I cant see any possible reason to tell the colleagues of the person you are going to fire before you tell them

      Your boss was just extremely conflict-avoidant, I think.

    2. Amaranth*

      Was this an extremely strange attempt at self-affirmation that he was doing the Right Thing? It doesn’t sound like you were exactly in a position to object to the firings.

  11. just a journo running on empty*

    Sending love from one journalist to another, OP. My job has been dangling potential layoffs over our heads too and using it as an excuse to push us to a breaking point. Lots of, “I know this is tough and everyone’s mental health is in the toilet and you’re working nights and weekends, but you have no choice! Keep it up! We’re proud of you!” underscored with, “You should be grateful you still have a job in this industry right now, so shut up and double your content output!” Frankly, I’m almost praying to be laid off because even though it’d logically be a disaster, I can’t help but think, “At least I could have a break.” I’m ten stops past burnout and might crack if I’m reprimanded one more for not hitting my quota in the middle of a pandemic.

    Anyway, OP, I’m glad you seem safe for now and hope that your job remains emotionally sustainable through the pandemic’s impact on the industry. Just….ugh.

    1. Midwest writer*

      Hugs from another journalist. I’ve got 20 years in newspapers and it’s pretty much been the same story the whole time. Burnout is a real thing.

    2. Goodbye Toby*

      Argghh this so much. On a all hands call, big boss actually said “we need to institutionalize this level of urgency.” I’m sorry, but WTF? The dangling layoffs and pushing people was never cool and always v tonedeaf, but it’s become unbearable. So sorry you’re in the same boat and hope you get a moment of peace soon!

  12. TootsNYC*

    Someone asked our Big Cheese if he could give any assurances that jobs were safe.
    His answer was, “Some of you are managers. You know that I cannot give such an assurance. We have already made many moves to try to avoid them. But I cannot know what the future will bring, and even if I know, I cannot tell you. You know that.”

    It’s really not a question that anyone can answer. No one should ask it.

  13. Alice*

    I’ve gotten some bad news from managers along these lines — nothing as serious as OP, I’m lucky — and I’ve been feeling pressure to make my manager feel better about the bad news she has to deliver.
    Saying something like “salaries are being cut” and then hoping that people will answer the question “how are you feeling about this” with something positive — what positive answer is there? I understand why leadership decided to do this, but I’m still not happy about it.

  14. AnonMinion*

    I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way but I would personally also add something like “please let me know if there are any additional tasks or responsibilities you’d like me to take on”. When people go away, the work doesn’t disappear. If you are concerned about your own job security more helpful and useful you can make yourself, the better.

  15. cheeky*

    I don’t know what the intention of telling you was, exactly, but if I were in your position, especially as a recent grad and new employee, I’d be planning for getting a layoff notice. A very similar thing happened to me when I was laid off in the last recession, and I was right to be worried that I’d be next.

  16. Berliner Morgenpost*

    “I have some experience with Y and could help out there if you need me to.” (Only offer this if you sincerely want to.)

    Disagree with the caveat. In a recession, if you have a hard-to-find skill, you need to be proactively offering it up, whether you “sincerely want to” or not. That may save your job.

    1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      This is true especially if your manager doesn’t know you may have a skill. People tend to leave unrelated skills or experience off their resume when applying for a job so it’s good to give a boss the heads up you have skills they may not know about.

    2. pamplemousse*

      Unless they report to someone very senior, though, the fact is OP’s manager isn’t likely to have much say over where future cuts (if there are future cuts) fall. So I’d say OP should volunteer to take on additional duties only if they can do it while performing at a high level in their current role, AND if they’re confident they can execute those duties with a high degree of success.

      (Also, as a journalist, this situation is honestly pretty unlikely unless someone else on OP’s team was furloughed or laid off. Skill sets in newsrooms tend to be fairly specialized, and it’s usually not that easy to just pick up someone else’s duties.)

  17. pamplemousse*

    Also a journalist and a manager at a company in similar straits, and your responses sound fine. If you have a good rapport with your manager, you could ask them for their take on the situation, if they think more cuts are likely, etc. They won’t be able to give you a certain answer, but they might have a better sense than you do about what decisions are being made and why; the fact that they’re calling to let you know even if you aren’t directly affected suggests they’re a decent manager, at least.

    But yeah, they’re awkward calls to make and receive. I check in with direct reports before or after bad company news, and sometimes they say something like “well it doesn’t seem to affect me, so even though it sucks there’s nothing really to talk about!” and I feel that.

  18. Brookfield*

    Excellent advice, and as a person who’s been on the laid-off-and-walked-out side of the equation, I’d like to add: PLEASE reach out to your laid-off colleague(s) and express your care and concern! It might be awkward, but if you’ve been working closely with someone who’s suddenly out of work, a sincere word of encouragement goes a long way – send a text, reach out via LinkedIn if you don’t know their personal email address, whatever. (Of course, if they’re bitter and angry they might not be in the mood to chat, but you know your work friends better than a stranger on the internet.) When I was laid off with about 30 others back in 2013, I’d been at the company for 7 years and had really solid relationships across several departments… but I only heard from five people right after the layoff. For all the people who later said they were so shocked and sad to hear that I’d been laid off, months or years afterward, I wish they’d have just picked up the phone to say so when it happened.

  19. RemoteHealthWorker*

    Graduate of 2010 here so I feel your terror at navigating layoffs when you are so new.

    My advice:
    Take your ques from those around you.

    Know that entry level roles are less at risk for layoffs since they are cheaper to keep.

    Check out ypur companies EAP if the stress mounts too much.

    If you do get laid of or a pay cut:
    Google “my state” pay laws.

    Start applying to jobs.

    Keep applying to jobs.

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