Delivering bad news is a huge
communication challenge. It requires great care,
especially if the news is upsetting rather than merely
inconvenient. Before you communicate bad news, whether
it is about the loss of jobs, a change in schedules or
benefits, a delay, or a denial, consider these 20 suggestions.
Use a variety of media, not just email.
Often the most effective communication choice
is email combined with other methods, but email
alone comes across as unfeeling and distant. Supplement
written communication with telephone calls, in-person
meetings, live online meetings, videoconferences, and
other choices. Consider communicating through letters
to clients' offices or employees' homes, memos, the intranet,
and blog posts.
Communicate more than once.
Provide additional details and updates in follow-up
communications. Especially if the news is serious,
people take in bad news only gradually. After they have
grasped the essential message, they will want details.
Reveal it—don't conceal it.
Don't try to protect others from bad news or
yourself from sharing it. If bad news leaks out,
people may be hurt and angry that they did not hear it
from you or through other appropriate channels.
Communicate bad news promptly.
A typical response to bad news is "How long
have you known?" If you have known for a
long time but have not shared the news, people may feel
that they have been cheated or that you do not trust them.
Recognize that there is no good time for bad news—share
it as soon as you can share it clearly and completely.
Use professional language.
Only use informal language or slang if your specific
audience will relate better to it. Think carefully
before using emoticons such as frowning faces or expressions
like "It sucks." Be serious when delivering
bad news, or your audience will be confused about the
seriousness of the message.
Include the good-news aspects of the bad news.
If you can legitimately share positive news,
do so, but see Tip 7 below. For example, downsizing
offices may seem like bad news, but it is good news if
it saves people's jobs. Delaying a software release is
bad news, but it is also good news if it means that the
new software will be significantly more reliable.
Do not sugarcoat, minimize, or disguise the message.
Avoid minimizing the message with cheerful,
positive language. Bad news is not more palatable with
a sweet coating.
Don't rely only on trickle-down communication.
Bad news needs to be communicated consistently
and quickly. Although for most news, the ideal
communicators are supervisors, managers, and people in
similar roles, it is best to communicate bad news to everyone
at once. A live meeting (in person or virtually) with
the CEO is one way to manage the challenge.
Saying you are sorry about a situation does not
mean you are guilty or liable for it. It means
you care. Tell employees, customers, clients, and patrons
when you are sorry that the news is not better. And if
the bad news is your fault—for example, if you missed
a proposal submission deadline because of your own mistake
or delay—accept responsibility and apologize so
that you and everyone else can move on.
Communicate first with the people who are most affected
by the bad news.
Never blog or Tweet about bad news before sharing
it completely, clearly, and compassionately with those
involved. If some employees will be transferred,
tell them directly before you tell others about the situation.
If some customers may suffer because of a policy change,
tell them about it before announcing the change broadly.
Answer essential questions.
Your audience will likely want to learn what,
why, who, when, where, how, how much, and what if. Include
all the information that is important to them. If you
don't have all the details, be honest but have a plan
to get the information. A lack of information often creates
a lack of confidence and commitment.
Individualize the message.
Employees have different questions from managers.
Your clients need different information from
your coworkers. Invest the time to write the right message
for each audience, and it will pay off in more successful
Don't communicate on people's personal time.
If bad news is serious, it may be prudent to
contact people at home. But most bad news should
be communicated at work on work time to avoid increasing
people's irritation and resentment.
Recognize bad news.
Anytime information is not welcome to your audience,
it is bad news, even if it seems positive or neutral to
you. For example, being enrolled in a training
program is bad news to an employee who doesn't see its
value or is too busy to attend. Changing health plans
is bad news to an employee who likes the current plan,
even if the new plan is better. Tips 6 and 11 above help
with this special type of bad news.
Use accurate titles or subject lines for bad-news communications.
If a title seems misleading, readers will be
skeptical about your entire message. Avoid titles
like "An Exciting Change in Benefits" if the
change is unwelcome to any of your readers. Instead use
the neutral "Change in Benefits Effective January
Avoid blaming other individuals.
It may be tempting to blame others for the bad
news you must share, but blaming individuals
or groups can be seen as unseemly and cowardly. However,
vague blame—for example, blaming the economy, government
regulations, or the H1N1 virus—is acceptable and
understandable to your audience—if it is truthful.
Mention anything you are doing to reduce the impact of
the bad news.
For example, if the parking lot will be closed
for two weeks for repaving and painting, describe
the plans you have made to shuttle employees to work,
offer bus passes, and increase telecommuting. If a delay
means you cannot ship an order in time for holiday delivery,
state what you can ship as a replacement, what type of
gift card you can provide until the product is available,
Write down your bad-news messages even when you will speak
Without a script, it is too easy to state incorrect
information and make unrealistic commitments. If
you will speak at a meeting, be prepared with written
answers to questions people are likely to ask.
Keep your promises to communicate.
Broken promises make bad news worse. If
you say you will provide more information on Monday, do
it. If the information is not available, say so.
Be compassionate with yourself and others. When
you deliver bad news, both you and the recipient will
probably feel bad. Don't be surprised or offended if the
other person or audience strikes back with sarcasm or
criticism. Do your best to be professional, and know that
the bad feelings will pass.
When the news turns
positive, communicate and celebrate it. When
laid off employees are recalled to work, when the software
is ready for release, when 90 percent of employees rate
the new plan "Very good or excellent," when
the contract is approved, announce the good news widely.
Celebrate the return to good times!