NSC: How EHS Leaders Can Effectively Deliver Difficult Messages

Oct. 6, 2010
Whether it’s delivering the tragic news of a worker fatality or going through a round of layoffs, EHS managers can take steps to deliver the bad tidings with sensitivity and compassion. Bob VandePol, president of Crisis Care Networks, spoke at the National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo in San Diego to share tips on delivering difficult messages.

“How do you communicate stuff that nobody wants to say and nobody wants to here?” VandePol asked. “My hope is to equip you to be able to do this well. There is no painless way … But it can be done well or it can be done poorly.”

Delivering the message well, VandePol stressed, is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business, reduces the chance of litigation, helps the company’s reputation and sends a positive message to other employees.

Fatality Notification

Before notifying family members that their loved one was fatally injured on the job, prepare yourself emotionally. First, should you be the person to deliver this news, and can you handle it emotionally? What are your vulnerabilities? If you’ve had a recent loss, or experienced similar events that led to the fatality, it may be more difficult to deliver the news.

“It’s not easy to do professionally, but it’s a heck of lot easier to do professionally than personally. If you’re wrestling with it and struggling with it, it might not be a good idea for you to go,” VandePol said.

For EHS professionals who do step up to notify family members, VandePol offered the following tips:

  • Make sure you have your facts straight. VandePol explained that there have been disastrous cases of going to the wrong address or notifying the wrong person of the death. “In the midst of this tragedy, you’re more likely to make mistakes,” VandePol said. Be sure you know the full identity of both the victim and the family.
  • Know the nature, time and place of the incident. “They’re going to ask,” he said. “For you to have to have some facts straight is important.”
  • Notification should be in person rather than on the phone. Whenever possible, do it as a team, not alone.
  • Keep in mind that the grieving family member needs a sense of the following: safety, self-efficacy, calming, connectedness and hope.

Control the Setting

  • If a close friend or family member already knows the news, include them in the notification.
  • Make certain the setting is confidential. People may scream, swear or otherwise lose control, VandePol said. Don’t give them this news in a place that jeopardizes their dignity.
  • Have a plan if children or neighbors are present. Do not inform children or neighbors before adult survivors. Remember that children will be watching and listening for their parent’s reactions and will take their cue from them.
  • Identify the next-of-kin/family spokesperson.
  • Arrange a safe travel for additional family members.
  • Sit down! If standing, the family member could fall and be injured. Being seated also feels less threatening.


VandePol also offered tips for the actual notification, though he pointed out that the process is never this neat or simple:

  • Identify yourself by name and the company you represent.
  • Sit close, establish eye contact and speak with a low, warm voice.
  • Inform simply and directly. Do this in stages and move from general to details. For example: “Your son has been involved in a serious accident (general). His car was struck by a large truck (details). Richard died as a result of his injuries (actual notification).
  • Avoid normal conversational filler – don’t ask the family members how they’re doing and don’t make small talk. “If you do chitchat talk, that’s because of your anxiety, not theirs,” VandePol said.
  • Be aware of individual and culture differences. Go with what is comfortable for them. It’s not about you.
  • Don’t fill the air with words. After you’ve notified, silence and a compassionate presence is okay. The “right words” to take away pain do not exist.
  • Simply say, “I’m so sorry,” which means condolences, not self-blame.

When They Know

  • Support adults as they inform children. It’s best for the kids if it can be the parent or recognized, nurturing figure who does tell them. Your job is to support and help them.
  • Be supportive but allow natural supports of family, friends, clergy, etc. to kick in.
  • Answer questions truthfully but sensitively. State only what you know for sure. Do not make promises that can or will not be kept.
  • Sometimes, out of our own anxiety, we give too much detail about the incident, VandePol said. Those images don’t do anybody any favors.
  • Be practical and think of issues such as childcare, food, tissues or work. Monitor the phone and door. Offer to make calls to clergy, family and friends.
  • Make sure natural or professional supports are in place before you leave.

Worst-Case Scenarios:

  • You lose it. If this happens, don’t flee. Apologize but remain with the loved one. Going with a team member helps alleviate this pressure.
  • They lose it. “They’re going to,” VandePol said. “It’s okay. You just need to be comfortable and sit.”
  • Medical crisis. Be prepared and make sure the loved one is sitting for the news.
  • Anger at self, each other, the company … or you, especially if you are the safety director and the fatality occurred on the job. Be prepared. Don’t argue with them. Listen. Say, “We’ll find out what happened.”
  • Risk of self-harm. Be prepared and call 911 if the loved one threatens self-harm.
  • There is no support for a solitary survivor. “I don’t have an answer for this one,” VandePol said. “As a company, you need to find some way to support them.”
  • Extreme attachment/dependency on you. After all, this person now views you in a way they never have before and may become inappropriately attached. Be prepared for this possibility and gently deflect it.

When notifying coworkers of a workplace fatality, draw “circles of impact” and group the employees based on their experiences. The workers who witnessed the fatality, for example, need to meet together to talk through it separately from workers who weren’t directly involved. Those other workers should be given a group announcement and offered a different process.

Other Difficult News

While fatality notifications are the most painful and traumatic, EHS professionals must often deliver other bad news such as layoffs, firings, performance issue confrontations and more. VanePol uses the ACT model to offer these other types of bad news:

Acknowledge – Acknowledge what has happened, deliver the information with sensitivity and acknowledge the event’s impact on people.

Communicate – Summarize what has happened. Communicating information serves to control rumors, reduce anxiety and return a sense of control to impacted individuals. “In the absence of information, people make stuff up,” VandePol pointed out.

Transition and Refer – Give people permission to care for themselves. It’s not irreverent or dishonoring to the deceased. Provide information about coping and emphasize resiliency. Focus first on practical assistance, such as determining basic and practical needs.

Finally, be sure to take care of yourself after bearing the bad news.

“When you have to deliver bad news, it shakes up your view of the world, too,” VandePol said.

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