Crash course in breaking bad news

Bad news is never welcome, but someone has to announce it. How best to do it?

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Keep it personal

Don't use e-mail, voice-mail or text messages to do your dirty work. 'It must be done face-to-face, whether that is one-on-one or in groups,' says Nick Wright, head of internal communications practice at Fishburn Hedges. 'Sending out a message doesn't give people the recognition they deserve, and they have no opportunity to respond and ask questions.'

Beware the rumour mill

'The informal communication channel in most organisations is very efficient, but not necessarily very accurate,' says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester. Get the news out in the open sooner rather than later.

Time it carefully

Ideally, bad news would be announced internally and externally at the same time, or a fraction earlier internally. 'You don't want to have people hearing the news from the media,' says Wright. 'But if you are a listed company, there is a legal requirement that shareholders are told first. So you have to plan accordingly.' You could brief senior teams after the market has closed so the news can be cascaded the following morning, but be wary of other workers missing out.

Plan for business as usual

Unless your entire business is about to go down the Swanee, you want minimal disruption as a result of the bad tidings. Make contingency plans to ensure smooth running.

Tell it as it is

'If you try to sugar-coat the news, people will see through you and may think it's worse than it is,' says Cooper. 'How will you get them back on your side once you've done that?' Don't hide behind euphemisms, but try to offer a way forward.

Don't cry crocodile tears

'If someone tells you their father has died and you burst into tears, it doesn't provide them with any support,' says executive coach and spoken communications consultant Richard Phillips. Overt displays of emotion only get in the way of the message. Showing you are affected is OK if it comes naturally.

Take ownership

Even if you don't agree with a decision, don't blame someone else. 'It's OK to express your disappointment, but not to slag off the people who made it,' says Wright. 'It's essential that everyone is well briefed; what you're aiming for is that even if people don't agree with a decision, they can see why it was made.'

Offer support

'To many people, bad news about work can be like a bereavement; life will never be the same again,' says Phillips. He suggests letting people get over the shock, then holding a follow-up session. Helplines and counselling can play a part.

Do say: 'Could everyone stop their work and gather round. I have some important news that affects all of us.'


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