Bad News

Delivering bad news is never easy, but professionals need to deliver bad news in many different situations, both internal and external to the organization:

  • bad review of job performance/elimination of position
  • applicant did not succeed in job search
  • smaller-than-expected funding for a program
  • customer order will be late, or is unable to be fulfilled
  • customer contact at the organization has a different position and customer will need to work with a new person
  • technical issues will interrupt services sporadically for the next week
  • and more…

Goals for Bad News Communications

There are seven goals to keep in mind when delivering negative news, in person or in written form:

  1. Be clear and concise in order not to require additional clarification.
  2. Help the receiver understand and accept the news.
  3. Maintain trust and respect for the business or organization and for the receiver.
  4. Avoid legal liability or erroneous admission of guilt or culpability.
  5. Maintain the relationship, even if a formal association is being terminated.
  6. Reduce the anxiety associated with the negative news to increase comprehension.
  7. Achieve the designated business outcome.

Approaches to Offering Bad News

There are two ways to approach communicating bad news, depending on the situation, audience, your role, and all of the other communication variables: a direct approach and an indirect approach.

Direct Approach

A direct approach offers the bad news immediately in the communication.  You may want to use a direct approach if you feel it is the clearest way to communicate bad news to a large audience, to cut down on possible misinterpretations.  You may want to use a direct approach if, as a supervisor, you need to correct an employee’s behavior.  You may want to use a direct approach if you know that your audience is prepared for it and expecting the communication.  You may want to use a direct approach if you need to curtail communications with a particular audience.  For example:

Effective immediately, you may no longer make personal, non-work-related copies on office copy machines. Since paper costs have risen 25% in the last year, and we have been ordering 30% more paper, the company is consciously trying to reduce costs of unneeded copying in order to sustain current operations. We appreciate your compliance in supporting the good of all in this company.

Mr. Smith, you have been consistently over a half hour late to work for the last month.  You are now under probation for the next month.  If this situation persists, the next steps are salary reduction and then termination. If you have any questions or want to speak directly to inform me of extenuating circumstances, please feel free to connect.

As you have heard, we will be losing the publications division and outsourcing our marketing publications as of April 15. Therefore, publications will not accept new projects after March 15.

Darren, I regret that I will no longer be able to respond to your repeated suggestions for a change in process since, as you know, I have broached the subject multiple times and have been told that our processes are not slated to change in the near future.

Choosing a direct approach does not mean that you can simply say what you need to say without considering your language, tone, and overall effect on your audience.  When you use a direct approach to giving bad news, you need to pay special attention to your language so as to get your audience to accept and understand the bad news without offending them.  Can you imagine Darren’s difference in reaction if he received a communication that said, “Darren, stop harassing me with that same old suggestion, which I told you is not going to achieve results.”

Two arrows pointing opposite directions. Pointing left = indirect approach: unexpected bad news, maintain relationships, soften strong negative reactions; Pointing right = direct approach: expected bad news, clarity, correction after multiple attempts

Indirect Approach

An indirect approach to communicating bad news houses the bad news later in the communication, usually as the third item in a list of four:

  1. Buffer – a lead-in to the communication, which often has a supportive tone, a statement of appreciation for the audience, or some positive or neutral information.
  2. Reasons – this section provides reasons for the bad news, in an attempt to help your audience more fully understand the situation that engendered the bad news and, hopefully, more easily accept it
  3. Bad News – a clear yet respectful statement of the bad news, such as you might have stated up front if you had used the direct approach
  4. Polite Ending – another attempt to redirect the impact of the bad news, with a professional, polite closing

You may want to use an indirect approach if you know a large portion of your audience will react strongly to the bad news.  You may want to use an indirect approach if you want to retain a customer’s business in the future, retain recommendations from a client, etc.  You may want to use an indirect approach if you think that the bad news is something that your audience has not been expecting, and will therefore be a shock. You may want to use an indirect approach if you want to maintain good working relationships with your coworkers and employees, who gauge and respond to your overall communication style.  For example:

Thank you so much for your interest in the Manager 2 position.  We were impressed with your credentials, and were pleased to have met you during the interview phase of the process.  During that phase, we interviewed twelve people, from the overall application pool of 295 for this position, many of whom had both appropriate education and multiple years of experience in similar positions.  Unfortunately, we cannot offer you this position at this time, because you have had fewer years of experience compared to others.   However, we were impressed with your skills, and encourage you to apply again for appropriate openings which will be advertised within the next two months.  Thank you again for your interest in XYZ company.

In this example, the buffer is in the first two sentences, which offer neutral and then positive information.  The reasons occur in the third sentence, which puts the job applicant’s experience into the broader context of how many people applied and were interviewed for the same job.  Offering details about just how far this applicant proceeded in the search helps the applicant prepare for the bad news coming in the fourth sentence, since it lets the applicant know that she progressed relatively far in the process.  This particular communication ends on a positive note.  The communicator in this case is genuinely encouraging the applicant.  It’s important to know, though, that you should not be inaccurate and provide positive information falsely, if it’s not really the case, as that is a breach of ethics. An appropriate alternative ending if there is no genuine interest in the applicant would be to replace the last two sentences with a polite “Thank you for considering XYZ company.  We wish you well in your future endeavors.”

Choosing Media for Bad News Communications

The examples above all used the written medium to illustrate different approaches to communicating bad news.  However, there are often situations that call for real-time conversation or a combination of media.  You should always do a situational analysis to identify the probable effects of using different media. A face-to-face, telephone, or Skype conversation has the advantage of being personal and private, as well as allowing you to gauge reactions through tone.  A face-to-face meeting adds non-verbal body language into the situation, which provides even more cues to help tailor the communication as you can visually judge your audience’s reaction to the news.  Face-to-face, telephone, and Skype have a disadvantage, though, of potential misinterpretation, because sometimes the response you get in terms of body language and tone masks the recipient’s focus, which might be a much more emotional response to the bad news. You may need to follow up a conversation with email or a written document of some sort in order to reinforce your message.

On the other hand, written communication has the advantage of creating a permanent record and a document to which communicator and recipient can both refer.  However, giving bad news in writing may not be appropriate in situations which call for a more personal approach.  Written bad news does not allow the recipient to ask questions to further her understanding.  And written bad news does not give you the immediate feedback you get from real-time spoken communication.  You may need to follow up a written communication with a personal meeting or phone call to further explain your message.


Remember that even though you may need to provide bad news, whether you use a direct or indirect approach, you need to provide that bad news using appropriate language and tone.  Consult the pages in this text on “You” Approach & Constructive Language and Style: Formality, Tone & Voice, Word Choice for fuller insight into providing bad news without using negative language or tone.

The following video offers a recap of major concepts related to communicating bad news.