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Tough love in finance: how to deliver bad news

When you work in finance and accounting, tough conversations go with the territory. At some point, you may have to tell someone their numbers are off, that they need to rethink a corporate strategy or a new hire, or that some part of a project or the company itself isn’t doing well.

While it’s understandably tempting to avoid awkward talks, your best bet is always to be honest and say what’s on your mind even when dealing with difficult topics. It’s a practice we regard highly at RoseRyan, where honest communication is a major part of the values we have embedded in the firm (Trustworthy, Excel, Advocate and Team).

The next time you have bad news to share with someone else, whether it’s your boss, a client, an employee, or an investor, I suggest you take a deep breath and keep the following tips in mind:

Pipe up early: As soon as you notice an issue, bring it up. If the people involved find out on their own, they may be surprised and upset, and less open to listening to what you say. During a RoseRyan engagement where a client had gradually expanded the scope of our work and the project had become more complicated, our project manager sat down with the client as soon as we realized the project was heading toward over-budget territory. Other service providers could have waited until billing time to spring this news on the client, but we don’t work that way. By proactively telling the full story and not waiting until the end of the project, RoseRyan was able to get the new budget approved and the client could plan accordingly.

Don’t hold back: If you’re tasked with helping others do their job better, you sometimes need to tell them something that they don’t want to hear or that they don’t even realize is happening. This scenario can happen at fast-growing companies when key people’s skill sets are not able to keep up with the more complex business’s needs. For example, a controller who has limited experience with complex revenue issues may be fine for a small startup in the development stages but may be in over his head as the company grows and starts to ship product. Supervisors and advisors may need to step in and alert the CEO that a change is necessary. While such conversations should be done in an honest and sensitive way, these issues are best dealt with as soon as possible before they affect the business.

Tread lightly: The topic of an under-skilled  team member is a highly sensitive one, of course. Whenever you’re dealing with personnel issues, it’s best to focus on the skills and talents required – and not get personal. In the finance department, this topic comes up all the time as new skills become needed and roles are expanded. If the situation requires bringing on board a more highly skilled professional for a particular role, it is best to communicate the specific requirements needed for the job to the individual getting reassigned, rather than dwelling on a list of failures in the past.

Keep the message brief: Rambling on about why something happened doesn’t do anyone any good and may make the situation worse. The person on the other end may even think the news is worse than it is. Take the time to plan out what you will say – I usually make an outline of the key points I want to make – so that you stay on message and don’t take all day to say it. Get to the point, and deliver the bad news clearly and quickly.

Suggest a solution: The communication process often provides an opportunity for turning a negative situation into a positive one. This is another reason to think carefully about what you’re going to say. Whatever happened, happened. Focus on the next steps and provide some options for resolving the problem. The recipient of your message will be grateful for the creative solutions.

Theresa Eng is a member of RoseRyan’s dream team. Her areas of expertise include financial planning and budgeting, finance operations, and SOX.

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