After reading this unit, you will be able to:
- organize and write negative messages
- outline the structure of an indirect-approach bad-news message
- explain the importance of communicating bad news carefully in professional contexts
Just as in life, the workplace isnt always sunny. Sometimes things dont go according to plan, and its your job to communicate about them in a way that doesnt ruin your relationships with customers, coworkers, managers, the public, and other stakeholders. When doing damage control, bad-news messages require care and skillful language because your main point will meet resistance. Rarely are people okay being told that theyre laid off, their application has been rejected, their shipment got lost en route, prices or rates are increasing, their appointment has to be moved back several months, or theyre losing their benefits. Though some people prefer that the messenger be blunt about it, in most cases you can assume that the receiver will appreciate or even benefit from a more tactful, indirect approach. Keep in mind the following advice whenever required to deliver unwelcome news.
The Seven Goals of Bad-news Messages
The video above provides five strategies for delivering bad news. Your ability to manage, clarify, and guide understanding is key to addressing challenging situations while maintaining trust and integrity with customers, coworkers, managers, the public, and other stakeholders. The list below provides a few more goals when delivering bad news in person or in writing:
- Be clear and concise to avoid being asked for additional clarification.
- Help the receiver understand and accept the news.
- Reduce the anxiety associated with the bad news as much as possible by expressing sympathy or empathy.
- Maintain trust and respect between you and your audience to ensure the possibility of good future relations.
- Deliver the bad news in a timely fashion in the appropriate channel(s).
- Avoid the legal liability that comes with admitting negligence or guilt.
- Achieve the designated business outcome.
Lets look at how we can achieve these goals in examples of the tricky situations in which we might find ourselves in the workplace.
Lets say you are a supervisor and your manager has tasked you with getting Chris, an employee who is usually late for work and has been arriving even later recently, to start arriving on time. Chriss tardiness is impairing not only his performance but also that of the entire team that depends on his work. You figure there are four ways you can handle this:
- Stop by Chriss cubicle and simply say, Get to work on time or youre out
- Invite Chris out to a nice lunch and let him have it
- Write Chris a stern email
- Ask Chris to come to your office and discuss the behaviour with him in private
Lets see how each of these alternatives meets our seven goals in delivering bad news.Figure 26.1: Follow this process to deliver bad news (Business Communication, 2019).
First, if you approach Chris with a blunt ultimatum at his desk, you can get right to the point there but risk straining the supervisor-employee relationship by putting him in his place in front of everyone. The aggressive approach might prompt Chris to demand clarification, make defensive excuses, or throw hostile counter-offensives right backnone of which are desired outcomes. For that matter, the disrespectful approach doesnt formally confirm that the tardiness will end. The lack of tact in the approach may reflect poorly on you as the supervisor, not only with Chris but with your manager as well.
When you need to speak to an employee about a personnel concern, it is always best to do so in private. Give thought and concern to the conversation before it occurs and make a list of points to cover with specific information, including grievances. Like any other speech, you may need to rehearse, particularly if this type of meeting is new to you. When it comes time to have the discussion, issue the warning, back it up in writing with documentation, and dont give the impression that you might change your decision. Whether the issue at hand is a simple caution about tardiness or a more serious conversation, you need to be fair and respectful, even if the other person has been less than professional. Lets examine the next alternative.
Lets say you invite Chris to lunch at a nice restaurant. He sees the fine linen on the table, silverware for more than the main course, and water glasses with stems. The luxurious environment says good job, but your serious talk will contradict this nonverbal signage, which will probably be an obstacle to Chriss ability to listen. If Chris doesnt understand and accept the message, requiring him to seek clarification, your approach has failed. Furthermore, the ambush fails to build trust, so you dont know whether Chris is going to make the extra effort to arrive early or just put in his time there doing the bare minimum while looking for another job.
Lets say instead that youve written Chris a stern email. Youve included a list of all the recent dates when he was late and made several statements about the quality of his work. You clearly say he needs to improve and stop being late, or else. But was your email harassment? Could it be considered beyond the scope of supervision and interpreted as mean or cruel? And do you even know if Chris has received it? If there was no reply, do you know whether it achieved its desired business outcome? A written message may certainly be part of the desired approach, but how it is presented and delivered is as important as what it says. Lets examine our fourth approach to this scenario.
You ask Chris to join you in a private conversation. You start by expressing concern and asking an open-ended question: Chris, Ive been concerned about your work lately. Is everything all right? As Chris answers, you may demonstrate that you are listening by nodding your head and possibly taking notes. You may learn that Chris has been having problems sleeping or that his living situation has changed. Or Chris may decline to share any issues, deny that anything is wrong, and ask why you are concerned. You may then state that youve observed the chronic tardiness and name one or more specific mistakes you have found in Chriss work, ending by repeating your concern. Because showing your concern makes Chris feel valued, he opens up about his situation so that you understand. It may turn out that he has to drop his kids off for school at 8 a.m. and then contend with Queensway traffic for the next hour to get to the office, consistently making him a half-hour late. You can then both agree that hell stay a little later or put in the missing hours at home, then write up that agreement in an email with your manager Ccd.
Regardless of how well or poorly the conversation goes, if Chris tells other employees about it, they will take note of how you handled the situation, and it will contribute to their perception of you. It guides their expectations of how you operate and how to communicate with you as this interaction is not only about you and Chris. You represent the company and its reputation, and your professional display of concern as you try to learn more sends a positive message. While the private, respectful meeting may not be the perfect solution, it is preferable to the other approaches considered above.
One additional point to consider as you document this interaction is the need to present the warning in writing. You may elect to prepare a memo that outlines the information concerning Chriss performance and tardiness and have it ready should you want to present it. If the session goes well, and you have the discretion to make a judgment call, you may elect to give him another week to resolve the issue. Even if it goes well, you may want to present the memo, as it documents the interaction and serves as evidence of due process should Chriss behaviour fail to change, eventually resulting in the need for termination. This combined approach of a verbal and written message is increasingly the norm in business communication (Business Communication for Success, 2015).
Key to achieving Goal #2 of delivering bad newsi.e., helping the receiver understand and accept information they dont want to hear or readis organizing the message using the indirect approach described in unit 11. If you tactlessly provide your audience with really bad news, you run the risk of them rejecting or misunderstanding it because they may be reeling from the blow and be too distracted with anger or sadness to rationally process the explanation or instructions for what to do about the bad news. A doctor never delivers a really serious diagnosis by coming right out and saying You have cancer! first thing. Instead, they try to put a positive spin on the results (It could be worse), discuss test results in detail, talk about treatment options, and only then come around to telling the patient the bad news. At that point, being clear about the bad news ensures that the receiver understands the gravity of the situation and is therefore motivated to follow through on the therapeutic recommendations given earlier. Key to avoiding misunderstandings when delivering bad news, then, is the following four-part organization:Figure 26.2: Determining when to use an indirect pattern is dependent on the communication situation (Business Communication, 2019).
- Bad news + redirection
- Positive action closing
This is much like the three-part structure weve seen before, only the body is now divided into two distinct parts where the order really matters. An explanation of each part of an indirect negative newsletter follows.
Bad-news Message Buffer
Begin with neutral or positive statements that set a goodwill tone and serve as a buffer for the information to come. A buffer softens the blow of bad news. The following are some possible buffer strategies:
- Good news: If theres good news and bad news, start with the good news.
- Compliment: If youre rejecting someones application, for instance, start by complimenting them on their efforts and other specific accomplishments you were impressed by in their application.
- Gratitude: Say thanks for whatever positive things the recipient has done in your dealings with them. If theyve submitted a claim that doesnt qualify for an adjustment, for instance, thank them for choosing your company.
- Agreement: Before delivering bad news that youre sure the recipient is going to disagree with and oppose, start with something youre sure you both agree on. Start on common ground by saying, We can all agree that . . . .
- Facts: If positives are hard to come by in a situation, getting started on the next sections explanation, starting with cold, hard facts, is the next best thing.
- Understanding: Again, if there are no silver linings to point to, showing you care by expressing sympathy and understanding is a possible alternative (Guffey et al. 2016, p. 194)
- Apology: If youre at fault for any aspect of a bad news message, an apology is appropriate as long as it wont leave you at a disadvantage in legal proceedings that may follow as a result of admitting wrongdoing. (See unit 25for more on effective strategies for apologizing.)
The idea here is not to fool the audience into thinking that only good news is coming but to put them in a receptive frame of mind for understanding the explanation that follows. If you raise the expectation that theyre going to hear the good news that theyre getting what they want only, to let them down near the end, theyre going to be even more disappointed for being led on. If you give them the bad news right away, however, they may be more distracted with emotion to rationally process the explanation or instructions for what to do about the bad news.
The justification explains the background or context for the bad news before delivering the bad news itself. Lets say that you must reject an application, claim for a refund, or request for information. In such cases, the explanation could describe the strict acceptance criteria and high quality of applications received in the competition, the company policy on refunds, or its policy on allowable disclosures, and the legalities of contractually obligated confidentiality, respectively. Your goal with the explanation is to be convincing so that the reader says, That sounds reasonable and similarly accepts the bad news as inevitable given the situation you describe. On the other hand, if you make the bad news seem like mysterious and arbitrary decision-making, your audience will probably feel like theyve been treated unfairly and might even escalate further with legal action or yelptributionavenging the wrong in social media. While an explanation is ethically necessary, never admit or imply responsibility without written authorization from your company cleared by legal counsel if theres any way that the justification might be seen as actionable (i.e., the offended party can sue for damages).
Use additional strategies to make the justification more agreeable such as focusing on benefits. If youre informing employees that they will have to pay double for parking passes next year in an attempt to reduce the number of cars filling up the parking lot, you could sell them on the health benefits of cycling to work or the environmental benefit of fewer cars polluting the atmosphere. If youre informing a customer asking why a product or service cant include additional features, you could say that adding those features would drive the cost up and you would rather respect your customers pocketbooks by keeping the product or service more affordable. In any case, try to pitch an agreeable, pro-social, or progressive benefit rather than saying that youre merely trying to maximize company or shareholder profits.
The Bad News Itself and Redirection
Burying the bad news itself in the message is a defining characteristic of the indirect approach. Its akin to the hamburger organization of constructive criticism sandwiched between statements of praise (see unit 29). Far from intending to hide the bad news, the indirect approach frames the bad news so that it can be properly understood and its negative (depressing or anger-arousing) impact minimized.
The goal is also to be clear in expressing the bad news so that it isnt misunderstood while also being sensitive to your readers feelings. If youre rejecting a job applicant, for instance, you can be clear that they didnt get the job without bluntly saying You failed to meet our criteria or You wont be working for us anytime soon. Instead, you can clearly imply it by putting the bad news in a subordinate clause in the passive voice:
Though another candidate was hired for the position, . . .
The passive voice enables you to draw attention away from your own role in rejecting the applicant, as well as away from the rejected applicant in the context of the competition itself. Instead, you focus on the positive news of someone getting hired. While the rejected applicant probably wont be pleased for the winning candidate, the subordinate clause here allows for speedy redirection to a consolation prize.
Redirection is key to this type of bad news effectiveness because it quickly shifts the readers attention to an alternative to what they were seeking in the first place. Some kind of consolation prize (e.g., a coupon or store credit) helps soothe the pain and will be appreciated as being better than nothing, at least. Even if youre not able to offer the reader anything of value, you could at least say something nice. In that case, completing the sentence in the previous paragraph with an active-voice main clause could go as follows:
. . . we wish you success in your continued search for employment.
This way, you avoid saying anything negative while still clearly rejecting the applicant.
Positive Action Closing
As weve seen in previous explorations of message organization (e.g., see unit 17 on email), the closing here involves action information. If your redirection involves some alternative, such as a recommendation to apply elsewhere, some follow-up details here would help the reader focus on the future elsewhere rather than getting hung up on you and your companys decision. Your goals here are the following
- Ensure that the reader understands the bad news without rehashing it
- Remain courteous, positive, and forward-looking
- End the conversation in such a way that you dont invite further correspondence
The first and last goals are important because you dont want the reader to respond asking you to clarify anything. The second goal is important because you ultimately want to appear respectable and avoid giving the reader a reason to smear your reputation in social media or proceed with legal action against you. See Table 26.1 for an example.
Table 26.1: Bad News Message Outline and Example MessagePartExample Message1. BufferThank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our product and are confident you will love it.2.ExplanationWe are writing to let you know that this product has been unexpectedly popular with over 10,000 orders submitted on the day you placed yours.3. Bad news + redirectThis unexpected increase in demand has resulted in a temporary out-of-stock/backorder situation. Despite a delay of 2-3 weeks, we will definitely fulfill your order as it was received at 11:57 p.m. on October 9, 2018, as well as gift you a $5 coupon towards your next purchase.4. Positive action closingWhile you wait for your product to ship, we encourage you to use the enclosed $5 coupon toward the purchase of any product in our online catalog. We appreciate your continued business and want you to know that our highest priority is your satisfaction.
Avoiding Disaster in Bad-news Messages
Delivering bad news can be dangerous if it angers the reader so much that they are motivated to fight back. If youre not careful with what you say, that message can be used as evidence in a court case that, when read by a judge or jury, could compromise your position. You can lower the risk of being litigated by following the general principles given below when delivering bad news.
Avoid Negative or Abusive Language
Sarcasm, profanity, harsh accusations, and abusive or insulting language may feel good to write in a fit of anger but, in the end, make everyones lives more difficult. When someone sends an inflammatory message and its interpreted by the reader as harmful to their reputation, it could legally qualify as libel that is legitimately actionable. Even if you write critically about a rival companys product or service by stating (as if factually) that its dangerous, whereas your version of the product or service is safer and better, this can be considered defamation or libel. If said aloud and recorded, perhaps on a smart phones voice recorder, it is slander and can likewise be litigated. Its much better to always write courteously and maturely, even under difficult circumstances, to avoid fallout that involves expensive court proceedings.
Avoid Oversharing but Tell the Truth
When your job is to provide a convincing rationale that might make the recipient of bad news accept it as reasonable, be careful with what details you disclose. When rejecting a job applicant, for instance, you must be especially careful not to share the scoring sheets of the winning and rejected candidates, nor even summarize them. Though that would give them full picture, it would open you up to a flood of complaints and legal or human-rights challenges picking apart every little note. Instead, you would simply wish the rejected candidate luck in their ongoing job search. When you must provide detail, avoid saying anything bad about anyone so that you cant be accused of libel and taken to court for it. Provide only as much information as is necessary to provide a convincing rationale.
At the same, its important that you tell the truth so that you cant be challenged on the details. If you are inconsistent or contradictory in your explanation, it may invite scrutiny and accusations of lying. Even making false claims by exaggerating may give the reader the wrong impression, which can lead to serious consequences if acted upon. Though some might say that omitting the truth is a form of lying, telling the truth selectively is the necessary compromise of a professional constrained by competing obligations to both the organization they represent and the reader who they dont want to anger or severely disappoint.
Respect the Recipients Privacy
Criticizing an employee in a group email or memoeven if the criticism is fairis mean, unprofessional, and an excellent way of opening yourself to a world of trouble. People who call out others in front of a group create a chilly climate in the workplace, one that leads to fear, loathing, and a loss of productivity among employees, not to mention legal challenges for possible libel. Called-out employees may even resort to sabotaging the office with misbehaviour such as vandalism, cyberattacks, or theft to get even. Always maintain respect and privacy when communicating bad news as a matter of proper professionalism (Business Communication for Success, 2015).
Direct-approach Bad-news Messages
Weve so far looked at expressing bad news using the indirect approach, but is it ever right to deliver bad news using the direct approach? Are there occasions where you can or should be upfront about the bad news? In the following situations, yes, its certainly appropriate to deliver bad news by getting right to the point:Figure 26.3: Although most bad news will be delivered using an indirect approach, in certain situations, the direct approach is preferable (Business Communications, 2019).
- When the bad news does not have a high emotional impact:
- In the case of small price or rate increases, customers wont be devastated by having to pay more. Indeed, inflation makes such increases an expected fact of life.
- If your job involves routinely delivering criticism because youre a Quality Assurance specialist, the people who are used to receiving recommendations to improve their work will appreciate the direct approach. Some organizations even require direct-approach communications for bad news as a policy because it is more time-efficient.
- When you know that the recipient prefers or requires the direct approach: Though the indirect approach is intended as a nice way to deliver bad news, some people would rather you be blunt. Give it to me straight, doc. Im a grown-up. I can take it, they might say. Since a message must always be tailored to the audience, getting permission for taking the direct approach is your cue to follow through with exactly that. Not doing so will arouse the angry response you would have expected otherwise.
- When youre short on time or space: One of the hallmarks of the indirect approach is that it takes more words than a direct-approach message (see unit 17 for comparative examples). If time is limited or youre constrained in how much space you have to write, taking the direct approach is justifiable.
- When the indirect approach hasnt worked: If this is the third time youve had to tell a client to pay their invoice and the first two were nicely-worded indirect messages that the recipient ignored, issue a stern warning of the consequences of not paying. You may need to threaten legal action or say youll refer the account to a collection agency, and you may need to put it in bold so that youre sure the reader wont miss it.
- When the reader may miss the bad news: You may determine from profiling your audience and their literacy level that they might not understand indirect-approach bad news (see Step 1.2 in the writing process in §2.2 on analyzing the audience). If your reader doesnt have a strong command of English vocabulary and misses words here and there, they may not pick up on the buried bad news past the mid-point of a challenging message.
In the above situations, structure your message following the same three-part organization weve seen elsewhere (e.g., unit 17 on email parts):
- Opening: State the bad news right upfront.
- Body: Briefly explain why the bad news happened.
- Closing: Express confidence in continued business relations with a goodwill statement and provide any action information such as contact instructions should the recipient require further information.
Of course, clarity and brevity in such messages is vital to maintaining friendly relations with your audiences (Guffey et al., 2016, p. 190).Figure 26.4: An example of how to apply the direct approach to delivering bad news (Business Communication, 2019).
Write carefully when addressing negative situations, such as delivering bad news, usually by burying the bad news after a buffer and rationale, and following it with redirection to minimize the harm that the message might cause.
1. Think of a time when you were given bad news by email or letter, such as when you were told that a warranty couldnt be honoured for the type of damage inflicted on your product or your application was rejected. How well did it fulfill or fail to fulfill the seven goals of delivering bad news.
2. Sales have decreased for two consecutive quarters at your business. You must inform your sales team that their hours and base pay will be reduced by 20 percent if the company is to break even this quarter. While you may have a few members of your sales team that are underperforming, you cant afford to be short-staffed now, so you must keep the entire team for the time being. Write negative news messages in both the direct and indirect approach informing your sales team of the news following the advice.
3. Research a crisis in your area of training or career field. What communication issues were present and how did they affect the response to the crisis? If the situation was handled well, what are the major takeaways? If handled poorly, what do you think you would have done differently?
Crawley, D. (2015). How to Deliver Bad News: Customer Service Training 10 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ltg2X0e5g-0
Guffey, M. E., Loewy, D., Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of business communication (8th Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson.
Lehman, C. M., DuFrene, D, & Murphy, R. (2013). BCOM (1st Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.
Mallet, L., Vaught, C., & Brinch, M. (1999). The emergency communication triangle. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Research Laboratory.
Skill Boasters. (2014). Breaking Bad News Difficult Workplace Conversations Training [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BN-RbUFAJx4