5 Ways to Successfully Deliver Bad News at Work

Businesses are built to deliver outcomes and sometimes those outcomes are bad. Disagreements with vendors can lead to increased insurance costs for employees. Dipping revenue can cause company-wide layoffs. Poor performance can lead to budget slashing in a new fiscal year.

This stuff happens all the time. So how do most managers deliver bad news to their associates?

Poorly, according to a study conducted in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Managers who actively prepare for difficult conversations, however, tend to deliver bad news in a way that improves the experience for both parties.

There are five primary steps to delivering bad news, and they work for conversations of all types and magnitudes.

  1. Prepare for the conversation itself. You need to completely understand the situation before speaking with the associate. Don’t engage in the conversation until you know how the decision was made, why the decision was made, who was responsible for making it, and what other outcomes were considered. If you can’t address all these details clearly, concisely, and accurately, then seek out whoever can and start asking questions.
  2. Alert the employee as to the nature of the conversation. You want to be direct with the employee, but delicate at the same time. By starting the conversation with caveats (like, “There’s no easy way to say this …” or, “This is awkward, but …”) you can buffer the response and signal that the discussion might not be a pleasant one. After the caveat, it’s important to deliver the bad news simply and straightforwardly. Think like a doctor who is delivering a serious diagnosis – short sentences and clear phrasing.
  3. Be honest and reliable. Avoid any inclination to sugarcoat the truth. Stay objective. Treat the employee with the respect he or she deserves by explaining exactly what’s happening and why. Many managers try to soften the blow of bad news, and it rarely helps the situation. Just be honest and direct.
  4. Demonstrate empathy. You’ve been on the receiving end of bad news. How would you want to be treated? Or better yet, how would you treat a friend in the same situation? Give the associate the care and understanding he or she needs by identifying with the circumstances and saying things like, “I understand how difficult this must be.” Deliver the news in a place where the associate can retain his or her dignity, and work through whatever emotions might surface.
  5. Give people time to take in the news. The employee will likely have questions. He or she will need time to process the situation, and it falls to you to provide the employee with both answers and time. Make sure he or she fully understands the situation, and allow a reasonable amount of time for the employee to completely process the levity of the conversation.

Bad news is difficult to deliver, but that doesn’t mean it should be delivered poorly. With these five steps, any situation can be communicated clearly, empathetically and respectfully to all parties involved.

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