Bad News Messages

Bad news is inescapable if you work for any length of time. Following are some situations you might encounter.

Situation #1: You must deliver unwanted news.

No, you are not being offered the job. We will not refund your money. You are not being granted the raise, scholarship, proposal, etc. you applied for. You did not get the promotion. You are fired. There will be no salary increases this year. Healthcare costs are going up, and the organization can no longer absorb them – it will mean a reduction in your take-home pay.

There is an art to delivering unwanted news. In most instances this indirect method is a helpful formula:

Begin with a buffer. XYZ organization highly values the contributions you have made as an employee.

Give reasons. As you may be aware, XYZ did not meet its sales goals for the first quarter.

State the bad news. Plant production is being reduced for the second quarter by 15%. Rather than reducing our staff size, each employee’s hours (and salary) is being reduced by 15%.

End positively. If sales improve by the third quarter, we’ll be back to full production (hours and salary) by the fourth quarter.

There are two exceptions to this indirect method:

1. You know you’re dealing with someone whose preference is direct method.

It is generally considered insensitive to state unwanted news directly. But some people take offense if you are indirect with bad news. They want it straight, otherwise they feel patronized. If you have the kind of relationship with someone you know has this preference, then be direct. Continue to be sensitive, just be direct.

2. Safety is a factor.

If you work for a manufacturing company that makes microwaves and your company has just realized model T-53 has a defect and can cause a fire, you cannot afford to be indirect with this information in your messages to customers. You should be very direct in your opening message to customers who bought this microwave: Do not use your model T-53! We have discovered a defect.

But in all other bad news situations, be indirect out of courtesy.

It is true that astute readers may see the bad news coming in your opening, but at least effort has been made to soften it a bit.

Strive to be genuine and specific. In other words, never say, “I regret to inform you that…” No one appreciates being treated like a random number when getting bad news.

Tell people why. It’s the main thing they want to know…why am I getting this bad news?

It’s important to end on a positive note, if there is any to be found. Stay appropriate to the situation. Don’t force a cheery note at the end that’s inflated or out of keeping with the message. But the closing is the final taste in a person’s mouth. So try not to end on a sour note.

One of the best letters I’ve ever seen on the art of saying no with compassion (and potentially keeping the customer – it is less expensive to keep the customers you have than to have to recruit new ones) is a refrigerator scenario from Writing That Works: How to Communicate Effectively in Business, by Roman & Raphaelson.

A man…Mr. Traggart…leaves town for three days. When he returns he finds his 3-year old refrigerator has quit working. His food is ruined. He is furious and writes to the Refrigerator Store where he purchased the refrigerator to demand his money for the repair be refunded. He also asks for a new refrigerator to ensure this will never happen again.

Buffer: A client representative from Refrigerator Store responds to Mr. Traggart’s letter by empathizing with his situation.

How terrible to return home and find your food ruined! I agree, Mr. Traggart, that you have every right to expect a 3-year old refrigerator to work.

Reasons: Next the representative explains that it is rare for any product, however well-manufactured, to have a perfect track record.

This is why you were offered a warranty at the time of your purchase. But I see that you did not opt to buy this warranty.

The “no”: Now the “no” and a highly logical reason for it that’s hard to refute.

If we refunded your repair cost and gave you a brand new refrigerator, it would be giving you the benefit of a warranty without having purchased it. 

Positive closing: But the door is compassionately left open.

I personally talked to the serviceman who fixed your refrigerator and he guarantees the repair should give you as many years of service as a new refrigerator. If it does not, please contact us immediately and we will make it right.

This “no” would not make me want to rip up the reply letter and never shop at the Refrigerator Store again. On the contrary, I would feel heard, a bit vindicated, and like I was still going to be helped if I had future problems.

This strategically worded letter from the representative might keep me shopping at Refrigerator Store.

Keep 4 goals in mind when delivering bad news: 

1. Be clear (yet sensitive).

2. Help your reader accept the bad news.

3. Leave a positive image of you and your organization.

4. Avoid legal liabilities.

Situation #2: Someone has delivered you unwanted news and now you must respond to it.

Perhaps you asked for something and were told no. Perhaps you interviewed for a job and didn’t get it. Or you submitted a proposal, and your request was denied.

While the natural thing is to sulk, pout, perhaps think darkly of the source of your “no,” if you can muster grace in the face of disappointment, grace serves you better in the long run.

Sometimes your gracious receipt of a “no” leads to an even better “yes” in the future. Try not to burn bridges; you might need to go back over one.

This does not mean you have to quell all feelings of righteous indignation.

Sometimes you’re done wrong and to protect that child who lives inside you, you need to speak up. In cases like this, go directly to the person you feel has wronged you and state it honestly, without inflating facts.

Or…go to your direct supervisor if this is some kind of office battle, and again, state your issue honestly, without inflating facts. That should make you feel better and serve as some political protection without leading to you being viewed as a vindictive colleague.

If for some reason you don’t feel safe handling things this way, go to a trusted mentor and seek advice – just the trusted mentor, not everyone around you. You risk damage to your professional reputation if you vent your frustration on everyone around you in the workplace.

Situation #3: You must decide whether to offer an apology.

If you have personally wronged another and know it, swallow your pride and own up to it. Go to that person and apologize.

You don’t have to go into long explanations of why you did what you did…what you were thinking at the time…the remorse that you’ve experienced in the time since. Just apologize if an apology is needed – for your own peace of mind or to repair a damaged relationship.

A face-to-face apology is best. If that’s not possible, a handwritten note is nice. An email is okay, but know there will be a permanent record of it and it could easily be forwarded to a secondary audience, so word it wisely.

If you represent an organization that has wronged someone, be very careful with your apologies. An apology, particularly if written and on company letterhead or from a company email address, can be viewed as an admission of guilt. Admissions of guilt can be legal matters and are best handled by the legally-trained.

It is possible to empathize with people and to offer an apology for any difficulties they may have suffered without making an admission of guilt.

How to say no gracefully (Greg McKeown)

Claim & Adjustment Letters

A few years ago I had some brake trouble with my car. On my third visit to the dealership’s service center, they finally agreed with me that there was an issue – to the tune of $620!

They said the rotors needed replacing. There were less than 25,000 miles on my car but they claimed it was a wear and tear issue not covered under my bumper-to-bumper warranty. When I asked what would cause rotors to go bad on a car with such low mileage a woman at the service center said, “Some people just ride their brakes hard.”

I took offense. I had been driving for over twenty years. If I was the culprit, why had I never encountered this issue before?

So I wrote a letter to the car company. This is called a claim letter – a letter asking that a wrong be righted.

The company sent me an adjustment letter as reply. This is the letter of response to a claim letter, where a company must decide whether a “yes” or “no” is most appropriate.

In my brake scenario I was reimbursed for the cost of the rotor repair. At no point did this car company admit to either defective rotors or rude service staff, but they did express their empathy for my situation and sent a check…which I gratefully (and hopefully gracefully, though I still get heated when I think about that woman’s suggestion that the bad rotors were my fault) accepted.

Crisis Communications

Every organization will have a crisis at some point.

Crises come in many forms: a disgruntled worker who goes postal, an executive that has a public affair, embezzlement, bad PR, a flood, an earthquake, an act of terror, a customer running a car through the store window, another slipping on a wet floor, or someone being harmed by a product you sold them.

You get the picture.

Crisis management and communications (Institute for Public Relations)

Crisis communications is its own individual study. I only mention it here as one aspect of bad news.

My best single piece of advice on crisis communications is this: have a loose plan in place before a crisis occurs. A loose plan will put you leagues ahead of never having considered that you could experience a natural disaster, security breach, public relations nightmare, or human-initiated act of violence.

This is an excellent article about Morgan Stanley on 9-11, an organization with thousands of employees in the North Tower who only lost six of them as a result of having a crisis communications plan.

A crisis communication plan can make the critical difference and save lives. You can never know specifically what crisis will occur, but if you have thought through some possibilities ahead of time, you’ll be better prepared in the moment.

My second best piece of advice is from Johnson & Johnson: be as honest and transparent as possible in the midst of a crisis.

When a Tylenol worker laced some pills with cyanide in 1982, Tylenol was transparent about it. Johnson & Johnson pulled Tylenol off retail shelves even after it believed it had identified and isolated the threat. Public trust was at stake.

This continues to be a case study in how a corporation ought to handle a crisis if they want to restore the faith of its consumers.

You don’t have to tell everything in a crisis. You don’t have to stand on a whipping pole or fall on your sword, but a lot of people only fan the flames when they clam up and refuse to talk about it. You open yourself to speculation gone wild.

Crisis Management: It helps to have a plan (blog post)

Notes of Sympathy (Empathy, really)

If you want to build meaningful relationships, reach out to people when they’re down. Sometimes this is difficult and awkward. We don’t know what to say.

The thing is, you don’t have to say much. Just…”I’m sorry to hear you are going through a difficult time.”

Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong (blog post)

Express your sorrow for others’ losses, whether they’ve suffered a physical loss (death of a family member), or the loss of something meaningful to them (a job, a coveted client, a proposal, a personal goal or dream, or they or a member of their family received a bad health report).

Be empathetic (me, too) rather than sympathetic (poor you) in your word choices. Brene Brown, who wrote The Gifts of Imperfection and delivered the popular TED Talks on The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame, says the most healing words in the English language are “me, too.”

When offering condolences, the only rule is to be genuine. This is not a time for canned phrases.

See this clip from Saving Private Ryan. It begins with letters being read in the background as women type in an office. The letters are highly personal. When people get bad news, their first question is WHY. These letters come from men who knew the fallen, and they offer specific information that’s meaningful to their loved ones.

A woman notices an address she recognizes, and pulls three letters, all going to the same place, and shows them to her supervisor who takes them up the chain of command. I love that this woman takes action when she realizes this correlation. Many of us choose not to get involved when unpleasant news is in the air.

After a meaningful segment that shows the mother receiving a clergyman at her farm, the Adjutant General, back at the war office, reads a letter Abraham Lincoln sent to a mother who lost five sons during the Civil War. Though a difficult task, Lincoln still made the effort to send this mother his condolences.

Bad news is never fun, but it’s best to face it squarely and considerately when it comes.

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