Delivering Bad News

I have some good news and some bad news...”

You know the joke. Someone offers upbeat information.

“The good news is that a customer asked if your work will appreciate after your death. When I told him it would, he bought all your paintings.”

The punch line follows, often involving health, law or religion.

“The bad news is that he was your doctor.”

The good news/bad news pair has been a staple of comedy for years, but it’s not a lesson in communication.

Delivering bad news to employees, customers or clients is far from funny. It is usually a difficult task, making even the best communicators uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it is also becoming more frequent in today’s trying economic times. Leaders and managers are announcing layoffs, acquisitions, reorganizations, changes in benefits, budget overruns, schedule delays and low returns. The messages are delivered to large groups, to small groups and in one- on-one conversations.

Is there an easy way? No. But there are techniques to make the delivery of bad news more effective, and knowing the techniques makes the delivery easier.

As with any communication, start by analyzing your audience and identifying information the audience will understand and accept. One easy way to pull the entire message together is to follow a standard outline. It isn’t the one-two punch of the good news/bad news joke: Few people appreciate humor in serious situations that involve undesirable outcomes. Instead, effective delivery often contains these four elements:

  • A neutral statement both the speaker and audience can agree on
  • The bad news in one sentence
  • The impact of the news on the audience
  • Supporting details and facts

Each element is important; together they can help you deliver bad news to an audience of any size.

The Neutral Beginning
Start with a simple statement of relevant information that everyone in the audience can agree to. This neutral sentence helps draw in the audience and set the stage with facts about the environment that led to the circumstances at hand.

“Our business has been affected by the closure of the factories on Second Street,” is an example. The statement should be a fact that everyone recognizes. Depending on the situation, you may state the importance of some element, such as customer satisfaction, or point out a challenge that everyone can recognize as being difficult.

The neutrality encourages listening; if the first sentence is not something most people will readily agree with, they will form arguments in their head or stop listening. Delivering the bad news in the first sentence is usually too abrupt and doesn’t give the audience enough time to anticipate and prepare for the message. Those listening may reject the message or start distancing themselves from it and fail to absorb it.

Briefly stating a significant, evident fact also sends a signal that the message is serious and has been well-considered. This sets the right tone and gives the audience time to prepare for a serious message. One sentence is all that is needed – don’t drag it out.

Phyllis Davis Hemphill, co-author of Business Communication, calls this neutral beginning a “buffer,” because it helps cushion the blow.

Boiled-Down Bad News
Once you’ve set the stage, immediately deliver the bad news in a simple, clear statement. Avoid building suspense, and leave no doubt about your message. Choose words that are not likely to stir emotions.

“The negative should be given once, clearly and not repeated,” advises Nancy Schullery, professor of business information systems at Western Michigan University. Schullery, a member of the board of directors of the Association for Business Communication, suggests avoiding negative terms such as “unfortunately,” “dismal,” “mistake” and “misunderstanding.”

“We will be closing this store in four months,” is an example of a simple, clear statement of bad news. 

The Connection to the Audience
Your next job is to answer the question that has popped into the audience’s head: “What does this mean to me?” Many times this portion of the message literally contains the word “you.” This may not be possible when you are speaking to a large group, but it’s important to be specific. Use numbers to quantify the situation and provide dates to answer, “When?”

For example: “About 60 percent of you will be relocated to other stores. The other 40 percent will receive layoff notices at the end of next month.” 

Supporting Facts
Follow up with details, reasons and projections about the future. This supporting information often becomes the substance of your delivery, showing that the message is realistic and grounded in fact. You can provide implementation details. If appropriate, explain other options that were considered and the reasons why they were rejected.

                    “Delivering the bad news in the first sentence is usually
                    too abrupt and doesn’t give the audience enough time
                    to anticipate and prepare for the message."

Here is an example: “We are assessing skills and evaluating the needs at the West Tanner, Centerville and Scottsdale stores to determine which employees will be able to move into positions there. The results of the assessment will help us understand within four weeks which jobs are in jeopardy.”

Still having the audience’s attention when you give such important information depends on the effective- ness of the earlier pieces. If they were not delivered clearly or seemed overwhelming, the audience may have shut down.

A few more examples illustrate the simple outline:

“Our schedule to manufacture and assemble the system has been disrupted by the flooding at our supplier’s location. The original delivery date has slipped, and you will have the system on March 10. We have confidence in this date because...”

“The rising cost of health insurance threatens our ability to keep prices competitive. In order to stay in business, the employee contribution to medical benefits will increase in January. Depending on the coverage you elect, your costs will range from...”

“The LX-C program was an important part of our long-term business plan. Losing that proposal means leaner years ahead and the possibility of layoffs in 10 months. The most vulnerable jobs are in...”

“The shortfall in county funds is causing cutbacks in many areas. Each library in the county system will have fewer operating hours starting next month. Beginning May 1, this branch will be closed...”

Some circumstances – such as issuing reprimands within an employee discipline system or handing an individual employee a layoff notice – may require following a prescribed procedure or script. In such cases, be sure to consult with Human Resources or Legal advisors. If no guidelines are available, analyze your audience, then use the elements outlined here:

Tips for Delivering Bad News

Be honest. Give accurate information. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say you don’t know. If you don’t know it off-hand, explain when you can provide the information accurately and then follow through. 

Be open. Avoid “sins of omission” by providing as much information as you can. The audience will sense when important information is being withheld, even if everything said is true. Being open is an important part of earning trust. If you know but can’t share, explain why you cannot and reveal when you will be able to provide the information. 

• Keep your message – and language – clear. It is easy to get tripped up in your own words trying to soften the blow, but masking reality is misleading and makes sorting out the truth later even more painful. Avoid distorting the truth and notice if you are relying on big words – they are often a signal that you are not being direct. 

Acknowledge the emotions and reactions of the audience. Once you state that you understand the anxiety of audience members, for example, you remove their impulse to interrupt and express their emotions. Remember that even those indirectly affected by the news may need to adapt in some way, and change is usually stressful. Acknowledging such feelings will also put you in the right frame of mind to address the subject appropriately and will help you choose language that is most sensitive to the feelings of others. 

Keep your own emotions in check. Even if you are upset by the news, try to present it without showing your own distress. To others who are more negatively affected than you, a display of emotions may seem insincere or offensive. 

Don’t make the message about you. Don’t say how difficult it is for you to deliver the news or try to play on the audience’s sympathy. One manager, caught up in expressing how tough the conversation was for him, dragged out the delivery of a layoff notice from 10 minutes to 45, confusing the employee and unnecessarily extending the agony for both of them. More messages should contain “you” than “I.” You can speak from the heart, but be aware that the audience may resent any sentiments that do not seem sincere. 

“Don’t apologize,” cautions Schullery. “It implies fault,” she explains, and as such should be avoided in situations where litigation could become a possibility. Apologies also invite skepticism and resentment if the audience disagrees with the action taken. 

Start early. When provided with even the earliest indications that change may be necessary, employees start to figure things out for themselves. They begin to prepare for and accept ensuing bad news as more details emerge. Starting early, when sales are first lower than expected for instance, fosters trust and minimizes surprises. 

Be specific. Saying that customer orders have dropped from 15,000 to 4,200 in one month clarifies the magnitude of the problem. Details like this also make it evident that the facts have been analyzed and that actions are based on a clear understanding of the situation. Such information fosters trust that others are taking the best actions to remedy or at least adjust to the situation. Avoid words like “very”, “dramatically”, “apparently”, “obviously” and even “of course”. Anticipate questions and be prepared with backup information. 

If there is an upside, share it – but do not dwell on it. Overall, keep the tone of the message positive. Avoid words such as “bleak” or language that is similarly pessimistic or hopeless. Don’t overdo it or stretch to find a silver lining. It is difficult for employees, for example, to take comfort in the positive effect their layoff will have on the company. 

Deliver the news face to face. In-person communication is more difficult, but more credible. It allows eye contact with all audience members in a small group and with some even in a large group setting. The personal delivery of bad news signals its importance, suggests leadership competence, and usually signifies a level of concern or care.

As employees become more dispersed globally, the opportunity to deliver bad news face to face may decrease. Webcasts may help reach geographically dispersed employees at the same time with bad news, in a forum that at least tries to simulate face-to-face delivery.

Also, the widespread use of computers to communicate company news may eventually make sending bad news in an e-mail more acceptable. If you are delivering the bad news in writing, craft your message using the same four-part sequence:

1) Get attention with a neutral statement that implicitly gains the audience’s agreement. 2) Deliver the bad news clearly and briefly. 3) Do what you can to answer, “How does that affect me?” 4) Provide the details and supporting facts. And leave the joke book at home.

Kathy S. Berger is a freelance writer living in Los Alamitos, California. She has written several articles for the Toastmaster. Reach her at