• Bearing Bad News -Part 1

  • In environmental consulting, you sometimes have to be the bearer of bad news.  Telling a client their property has a serious contamination problem and they now own a significant financial liability is not enjoyable, but it's something we all have to do from time to time in this business.  Here are a few dos and don'ts I have learned when faced with this unfortunate task.

    Be Honest
    Tell your client the truth. Don't 'candy-coat' the bad news or offer unreasonable promises for a solution. Be up-front, honest, and realistic - and make sure you have all the necessary facts to support your opinion - before you provide it.

    Be Timely
    Sure nobody likes to give or receive bad news; but don't delay waiting for 'the right moment' - there is no 'right moment'. When you have identified the problem and have the necessary data, inform your client right away.  Colin Powell, former US secretary of State once said "Bad news isn't wine. It doesn't improve with age." If you strongly suspect there may be future problems, I think it's best to give some advance warning so no one is taken by surprise.

    The Facts.... Just the Facts
    Noted English author and speaker Simon Sinek, said: "More information is always better than less. When people know the reason things are happening, even if it's bad news, they can adjust their expectations and react accordingly. Keeping people in the dark only serves to stir negative emotions." As consultants we need to provide our clients with the whole picture, which can be difficult when we deal with geologic unknowns, not to mention getting differing professional opinions whenever multiple experts are involved.  It's vital that we get all the data and get it right, before we deliver the bad news.

    Don't Assume
    You know what they say when you assume ....... you could also get yourself and your client into big trouble with broad-based or unsupportable assumptions. Don't hide any relevant facts, and never give advice for which you are not qualified (and insured). Geoscientists, engineers and environmental consultants should never, ever, ever presume to give legal advice to their clients - unless that advice is limited to 'I think you need to consult a lawyer'.

    Follow Up and Follow Through
    Don't leave your client hanging. If there is a regulatory requirement for further action or reporting, make sure you inform them, and provide assistance if necessary.  If you have a potential solution or suggestions, bring these forward, but don't turn it into a sales pitch.  Remember, our clients are relying on us for our expertise and experience, so let's provide that whenever we can.
    By Bill Leedham, P.Geo., CESA
    About the Author:
    Bill is the Head Instructor and Course Developer for the Associated Environmental Site Assessors of Canada (AESAC); and the founder and President of Down 2 Earth Environmental Services Inc. You can contact Bill at info@down2earthenvironmental.ca