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How To Soften Bad News in the Workplace

Updated on August 21, 2013
Deliver bad news in a professional manner but soften it as much as possible.
Deliver bad news in a professional manner but soften it as much as possible. | Source

In business communication, there are some times when unpleasant news needs to be relayed. No one wants to either be the sender or recipient of bad news, even if it is expected.

There are professional ways to relay bad news and common courtesies and language.

In order to relay bad news professionally and respectfully, you must assess the situation, the audience and the occasion.

Here are some tips for making the task a little less unpleasant.

Use Positive Language

If you are delivering bad news to an employee or set of employees, choose your words carefully. Think about framing sentences using positive words to explain a negative problem.

Assuming that the bad news is being revealed to employees who are otherwise in good standing with the company, think about how to highlight their positive attributes and contributions before sharing the bad news.

For example:

  • Not as positive: We are here today to announce five day furloughs for all employees in the marketing department, beginning next week.
  • More positive: During these tough economic times, ABC Company appreciates the hard work of all our marketing co-workers. Unfortunately, tough financial times have made some temporary furloughs necessary in order to place our budget back on track.

In the second example, the employees are given more information; they realize that they are not to blame. It also lets them know that the company regrets the furloughs but finds them an unfortunate necessity. Words such as "temporary" and "necessary" let them know the gravity of the situation while still giving them something positive for their focus.

Find the Bright Points

As in the example above, humans necessarily cling to any amount of positive information, even when they are facing negative situations.

If employees are facing layoffs, mention severance packages, job placement services and recommendations early in the news. This allows them to begin to see options and form a plan for finding a new job or coping with the loss.

In giving information about furloughs, point out that while they are tough, it is being implemented in order to avoid layoffs or further layoffs. Knowing that they still have a job is a positive point and one that can help to diffuse the anger and frustration of a tough situation.

Even in hard financial times, bad news needs to be delivered with character and consideration.
Even in hard financial times, bad news needs to be delivered with character and consideration. | Source

Try To Talk In Person

In a world of internet, email and cell phones, it is often very tempting to relate bad news via these methods. And sometimes it may be necessary given distance or time constraints.

But in order to foster good will and to humanize the experience, it is important to relay bad news in person when possible.

Delivering bad news in person allows the messenger to relay body signals of empathy and keeps words from being misunderstood. Questions can be asked and any misunderstandings cleared up.

If you will be talking in person, try not to build up too much anticipatory stress by telling the person far ahead of time. Example: "Joe, could you come by office at 4 PM tomorrow to talk?"

Many will likely suspect bad news and their level of stress and defensiveness will be higher when they do come to talk about it.

Be Empathetic

Sympathy means that you feel sorry for someone else's situation. Empathy, on the other hand, shows that you understand what the person is feeling and why they are feeling that way.

When delivering bad news, relate with their situation. Share stories. If you are delivering bad news about a pay cut that you will also receive, make sure that your co-workers know this. Let them know that you understand the hardship and that you hope to work together to keep the workplace positive and encouraging.

If the bad news you are delivering does not affect you, find a story from your own past or someone else's past to help soften the blow. Stories of your own past experiences with a layoff or other negative experience may offer some encouragement for the employees receiving the bad news. This also lets them know that you understand and care.

Prepare for a negative reaction when delivering bad news at work.  Remain professional.
Prepare for a negative reaction when delivering bad news at work. Remain professional. | Source

Prepare For The Negative While Staying Positive

Remember that bad news at work is often life-altering. Whether it is a layoff, furlough or pay cut, the employee's outlook and plans will be negatively affected and by further extension their families and others that depend on them.

Realize that negative reactions and words may be verbalized by the employee receiving the bad news. Prepare for this type of reaction and do not get defensive or allow yourself to be caught off guard by their emotional reaction.

Continue to offer encouragement, positive words and empathy even as they are expressing their frustrations and fears. If services are in place within the company such as counseling and placement services, remind them of these options.

If a co-worker becomes frustrated or uses abusive language, it is often very hard to hold back and remain professional. In the long run, though, the employee will calm down. Your own handling of the situation and your ability to remain calm will help to diffuse the reaction.

Remember that their reactions and frustrations are understandable and most likely the result of stress and fear.

What Should You Do In These Negative Workplace Situations? Take the Quiz!

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No One Wants To Give Bad News

No one wants to give bad news and, of course, no one wants to receive it. Unfortunately, though, it is a part of any workplace situation. Making sure that you remain positive, focused and understanding will make the experience less stressful for everyone involved.

Remember to:

  • Stay positive
  • Talk in person
  • Show empathy
  • Stay professional

Bad news is tough for the messenger and receiver. Make sure to deliverit in the best way possible.

The Human Side of Breaking Bad News At Work

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