Do You Deliver Bad News Well?

No matter how skillfully you phrase it, bad news will hurt, frustrate or anger your readers. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

"I love that idea!" "Your cooking is delicious." "No, I don’t think they’ll arrest you for that." Most of us will say anything to avoid telling people something they don’t want to hear.

But in your career, you won’t always have that option. Often situations at work will force you to deliver bad news, usually in writing. Some examples:


  • Your boss asks you to end your department’s long-standing business relationship with a vendor.
  • You have to let your co-workers know you’ve made a mistake that’s going to cost your agency money or embarrassment.
  • You have to tell your staff that you’ve been forced to freeze raises and promotions.

No matter how skillfully you phrase it, bad news will hurt, frustrate or anger your readers. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Here’s the wrong way:


Based upon the merger proceeds distribution, the value of the Plan is less than the required exercise price of participants. Accordingly, if you were to exercise your options, the amount of consideration would be less than the contribution. I encourage you to consult with your tax and financial advisors.

Thank you,


Wow. This is an actual email my friend received, and it does just about everything wrong.

It delivers bad news—each employee’s stock plan is now worthless—with no empathy. It’s written in financial jargon and not plain English. And not only does it fail to end on a positive note—which a bad-news message should—it actually ends with a challenge to the employee: Don’t believe us that your stock no longer has any value? Go ask your accountant.

Yes, delivering bad news is awful. But it’s also an opportunity—to show your character, build your credibility, increase your reputation, and maybe even strengthen your relationships.

Here’s the right way to deliver bad news in writing:

 State the bad news clearly.

A few months ago, a software firm I’m familiar with realized they weren’t going to meet a deadline they had promised to their biggest client.

The CEO, terrified of upsetting the client, wrote them an email to try to explain. But he wrote such a confusing and jargon-filled message that the client read it and thought the software firm would meet the deadline.

So the company had to deliver the bad news all over again, and the client was far angrier the second time because they believed the original email was used to mislead them.

There’s no point muddying your bad-news message with unclear language. You can’t hide from the information you’re delivering. Respect you reader and just state it plainly.

Be candid.

In a great TV moment, a captain on NYPD Blue confesses to his detectives, after battling with them, "I made a bad call. You guys bailed me out. Thank you." When the captain walks away, one of the detectives, lead character Andy Sipowicz, says, "This guys shows me something."

That’s about as close to a compliment as the nasty Sipowicz character offers anyone in 200 episodes of the series. And how did the captain earn such high praise? Simple: he admitted a mistake—humbly, candidly, without excuses.

When you’re open and candid in a bad-news message—especially when taking responsibility for an error—you disarm your readers. They’ll still be upset with the message, but by being candid you can reduce your recipients’ anger toward you as the messenger.

It’s hard to be angry with someone who honestly owns up to a mistake.

Plus, candidly delivering bad news or an apology can actually raise your credibility and increase the recipient’s respect for you.

    3. Show empathy.

Our project proposal was denied. Let me know if you have questions.

Ouch. Wouldn’t you love to work for this person?

Reading a bad-news message that contains no empathy only compounds your readers’ frustration.

By taking just an extra minute to consider how your bad news will affect your readers, and writing from a place of empathy, you can take some of the sting out of the message. Try it this way:

You’ve all shown real dedication to our new project proposal. So I wish I didn’t have to deliver this news—the initiative has been denied.

Your hard work throughout the proposal process showed me how seriously each of you took this initiative, and you should be proud of the work you have done.

Show your readers that you understand how the news will affect them and that you wish they didn’t have to receive it.

If possible, end with something positive.

Another good rule: if you can, start You’ll notice in the example above that I actually sandwiched the bad news—But even if you can’t find a way to start the message positively, you should at least end it with something positive.

I’m afraid that, due to department-wide budget cuts, we can’t issue any raises this year. Please know that this is in no way a commentary on your performance. I promise to do everything in my power to ensure that next year you receive the additional compensation you deserve.

Now, wouldn’t it be better to work for that person?

 So how about you? How do you deliver bad news? Have you found any strategies that work for you?

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.