8.3: Negative Messages

Learning Objectives

Target icon3. Organize and write negative messages

i. Outline the structure of an indirect-approach bad-news message
ii. Explain the importance of communicating bad news carefully in professional contexts

Just as in life, the workplace isn’t always a bowl of cherries. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and it’s your job to communicate about them in a way that doesn’t ruin your relationships with customers, coworkers, managers, the public, and other stakeholders. When doing damage control, bad-news messages require care and skillful language because your main point will meet resistance. Rarely are people okay being told that they’re laid off, their application has been rejected, their shipment got lost en route, prices or rates are increasing, their appointment has to be moved back several months, or they’re losing their benefits. Though some people prefer that the messenger be blunt about it, in most cases you can assume that the receiver will appreciate or even benefit by a more tactful, indirect approach. Keep in mind the following advice whenever required to deliver unwelcome news.

Negative Messages Topics

8.3.1: The Seven Goals of Bad-news Messages

Your ability to manage, clarify, and guide understanding is key to addressing challenging situations while maintaining trust and integrity with customers, coworkers, managers, the public, and other stakeholders. Keep in mind these seven goals when delivering bad news in person or in writing:

  1. Be clear and concise to avoid being asked for additional clarification.
  2. Help the receiver understand and accept the news.
  3. Reduce the anxiety associated with the bad news as much as possible by expressing sympathy or empathy.
  4. Maintain trust and respect between you and your audience to ensure the possibility of good future relations.
  5. Deliver the bad news in a timely fashion in the appropriate channel(s).
  6. Avoid the legal liability that comes with admitting negligence or guilt.
  7. Achieve the designated business outcome.

Let’s look at how we can achieve these goals in examples of the tricky situations in which we might find ourselves in the workplace.

Let’s say you are a supervisor and your manager has tasked you with getting Chris, an employee who is usually late for work and has been arriving even later recently, to start arriving on time. Chris’s tardiness is impairing not only his performance but also that of the entire team that depends on his work. You figure there are four ways you can handle this:

  1. Stop by Chris’s cubicle and simply say, “Get to work on time or you’re out”
  2. Invite Chris out to a nice lunch and let him have it
  3. Write Chris a stern email
  4. Ask Chris to come to your office and discuss the behaviour with him in private

Let’s see how each of these alternatives meets our seven goals in delivering bad news.

First, if you approach Chris with a blunt ultimatum at his desk, you can get right to the point there but risk straining the supervisor-employee relationship by putting him in his place in front of everyone. The aggressive approach might prompt Chris to demand clarification, make defensive excuses, or throw hostile counter-offensives right back—none of which are desired outcomes. For that matter, the disrespectful approach doesn’t formally confirm that the tardiness will end. The lack of tact in the approach may reflect poorly on you as the supervisor, not only with Chris but with your manager as well.

When you need to speak to an employee about a personnel concern, it is always best to do so in private. Give thought and concern to the conversation before it occurs and make a list of points to cover with specific information, including grievances. Like any other speech, you may need to rehearse, particularly if this type of meeting is new to you. When it comes time to have the discussion, issue the warning, back it up in writing with documentation, and don’t give the impression that you might change your decision. Whether the issue at hand is a simple caution about tardiness or a more serious conversation, you need to be fair and respectful, even if the other person has been less than professional. Let’s examine the next alternative.

Let’s say you invite Chris to lunch at a nice restaurant. He sees the fine linen on the table, silverware for more than the main course, and water glasses with stems. The luxurious environment says “good job,” but your serious talk will contradict this nonverbal signage, which will probably be an obstacle to Chris’s ability to listen. If Chris doesn’t understand and accept the message, requiring him to seek clarification, your approach has failed. Furthermore, the ambush fails to build trust, so you don’t know whether Chris is going to make the extra effort to arrive early or just put in his time there doing the bare minimum while looking for another job.

Let’s say instead that you’ve written Chris a stern email. You’ve included a list of all the recent dates when he was late and made several statements about the quality of his work. You clearly say he needs to improve and stop being late, or else. But was your email harassment? Could it be considered beyond the scope of supervision and interpreted as mean or cruel? And do you even know if Chris has received it? If there was no reply, do you know whether it achieved its desired business outcome? A written message may certainly be part of the desired approach, but how it is presented and delivered is as important as what it says. Let’s examine our fourth approach to this scenario.

You ask Chris to join you in a private conversation. You start by expressing concern and asking an open-ended question: “Chris, I’ve been concerned about your work lately. Is everything all right?” As Chris answers, you may demonstrate that you are listening by nodding your head and possibly taking notes. You may learn that Chris has been having problems sleeping or that his living situation has changed. Or Chris may decline to share any issues, deny that anything is wrong, and ask why you are concerned. You may then state that you’ve observed the chronic tardiness and name one or more specific mistakes you have found in Chris’s work, ending by repeating your concern. Because showing your concern makes Chris feel valued, he opens up about his situation so that you understand where he’s coming from. It may turn out that he has to drop his kids off for school at 8am and then contend with Queensway traffic for the next hour to get to the office, consistently making him a half hour late. You can then both agree that he’ll stay a little later or put in the missing hours at home, then write up that agreement in an email with your manager Cc’d.

Regardless of how well or poorly the conversation goes, if Chris tells other employees about it, they will take note of how you handled the situation, and it will contribute to their perception of you. It guides their expectations of how you operate and how to communicate with you as this interaction is not only about you and Chris. You represent the company and its reputation, and your professional display of concern as you try to learn more sends a positive message. While the private, respectful meeting may not be the perfect solution, it is preferable to the other approaches considered above.

One additional point to consider as you document this interaction is the need to present the warning in writing. You may elect to prepare a memo that outlines the information concerning Chris’s performance and tardiness and have it ready should you want to present it. If the session goes well, and you have the discretion to make a judgment call, you may elect to give him another week to resolve the issue. Even if it goes well, you may want to present the memo, as it documents the interaction and serves as evidence of due process should Chris’s behaviour fail to change, eventually resulting in the need for termination. This combined approach of a verbal and written message is increasingly the norm in business communication (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 17.1).

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8.3.2: Indirect Bad-news Message Organization

Key to achieving Goal #2 of delivering bad news—i.e., helping the receiver understand and accept information they don’t want to hear or read—is organizing the message using the indirect approach described in §4.1.2 above. If you tactlessly hit your audience over the head with really bad news, you run the risk of them rejecting or misunderstanding it because they may be reeling from the blow and be too distracted with anger or sadness to rationally process the explanation or instructions for what to do about the bad news. A doctor never delivers a really serious diagnosis by coming right out and saying “You have cancer!” first thing. Instead, they try to put a positive spin on the results (“It could be worse”), discuss test results in detail, talk about treatment options, and only then come around to telling the patient the bad news. At that point, being clear about the bad news ensures that the receiver understands the gravity of the situation and is therefore motivated to follow through on the therapeutic recommendations given earlier. Key to avoiding misunderstandings when delivering bad news, then, is the following four-part organization:

  1. Buffer
  2. Justification
  3. Bad news + redirection
  4. Positive action closing

This is much like the three-part structure we’ve seen before in §4.1, only the body is now divided into two distinct parts where the order really matters, as we see in Table 8.3.2 and the explanation for each part below it.

Table 8.3.2: Bad News Message Outline and Example Message

Part Example Message
1. Buffer Thank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our product and are confident you will love it.
2. Explanation We are writing to let you know that this product has been unexpectedly popular with over 10,000 orders submitted on the day you placed yours.
3. Bad news + redirect This unexpected increase in demand has resulted in a temporary out-of-stock/backorder situation. Despite a delay of 2-3 weeks, we will definitely fulfill your order as it was received at 11:57pm on October 9, 2018, as well as gift you a $5 coupon towards your next purchase.
4. Positive action closing While you wait for your product to ship, we encourage you to use the enclosed $5 coupon toward the purchase of any product in our online catalog. We appreciate your continued business and want you to know that our highest priority is your satisfaction.

(Business Communication for Success, 2015, 17.1)

8.3.2.1: Bad-news Message Buffer

Begin with neutral or positive statements that set a welcoming tone and serve as a buffer for the information to come. A buffer softens the blow of bad news like the airbag in a car softens the driver’s collision with the steering wheel in a high-speed car accident. If there are any silver linings that can calm the poor person about to be pummeled by the dark thunder clouds of bad news, here at the beginning would be a good time to point them out. The following are some possible buffer strategies:

  • Good news: If there’s good news and bad news, start with the good news.
  • Compliment: If you’re rejecting someone’s application, for instance, start by complimenting them on their efforts and other specific accomplishments you were impressed by in their application.
  • Gratitude: Say thanks for whatever positive things the recipient has done in your dealings with them. If they’ve submitted a claim that doesn’t qualify for an adjustment, for instance, thank them for choosing your company.
  • Agreement: Before delivering bad news that you’re sure the recipient is going to disagree with and oppose, start with something you’re sure you both agree on. Start on common ground by saying, “We can all agree that . . . .”
  • Facts: If positives are hard to come by in a situation, getting started on the next section’s explanation, starting with cold, hard facts, is the next best thing.
  • Understanding: Again, if there are no silver linings to point to, showing you care by expressing sympathy and understanding is a possible alternative (Guffey et al. 2016, p. 194)
  • Apology: If you’re at fault for any aspect of a bad news message, an apology is appropriate as long as it won’t leave you at a disadvantage in legal proceedings that may follow as a result of admitting wrongdoing. (See §8.2.2.2 above for more on effective strategies for apologizing.)

The idea here is not to fool the audience into thinking that only good news is coming but to put them in a receptive frame of mind for understanding the explanation that follows. If you raise the expectation that they’re going to hear the good news that they’re getting what they want only, to let them down near the end, they’re going to be even more disappointed for being led on. If you hit them over the head with bad news right away, however, they may be more distracted with emotion to rationally process the explanation or instructions for what to do about the bad news.

8.3.2.2: Bad-news Justification

The justification explains the background or context for the bad news before delivering the bad news itself. Let’s say that you must reject an application, claim for a refund, or request for information. In such cases, the explanation could describe the strict acceptance criteria and high quality of applications received in the competition, the company policy on refunds, or its policy on allowable disclosures and the legalities of contractually obligated confidentiality, respectively. Your goal with the explanation is to be convincing so that the reader says, “That sounds reasonable” and similarly accepts the bad news as inevitable given the situation you describe. On the other hand, if you make the bad news seem like mysterious and arbitrary decision-making, your audience will probably feel like they’ve been treated unfairly and might even escalate further with legal action or “yelptribution”—avenging the wrong in social media. While an explanation is ethically necessary, never admit or imply responsibility without written authorization from your company cleared by legal counsel if there’s any way that the justification might be seen as actionable (i.e., the offended party can sue for damages).

Use additional strategies to make the justification more agreeable such as focusing on benefits. If you’re informing employees that they will have to pay double for parking passes next year in an attempt to reduce the number of cars filling up the parking lot, you could sell them on the health benefits of cycling to work or the environmental benefit of fewer cars polluting the atmosphere. If you’re informing a customer asking why a product or service can’t include additional features, you could say that adding those features would drive the cost up and you would rather respect your customer’s pocketbooks by keeping the product or service more affordable. In any case, try to pitch an agreeable, pro-social or progressive benefit rather than saying that you’re merely trying to maximize company or shareholder profits.

8.3.2.3: The Bad News Itself and Redirection

Burying the bad news itself in the message is a defining characteristic of the indirect approach. It’s akin to the “poop sandwich” organization of constructive criticism sandwiched between statements of praise (see §11.1.4.2 below). Far from intending to hide the bad news, the indirect approach frames the bad news so that it can be properly understood and its negative (depressing or anger-arousing) impact minimized.

The goal is also to be clear in expressing the bad news so that it isn’t misunderstood while also being sensitive to your reader’s feelings. If you’re rejecting a job applicant, for instance, you can be clear that they didn’t get the job without bluntly saying “You failed to meet our criteria” or “You won’t be working for us anytime soon.” Instead, you can clearly imply it by putting the bad news in a subordinate clause in the passive voice:

Though another candidate was hired for the position, . . .

The passive voice (see §4.3.4 above) enables you to draw attention away from your own role in rejecting the applicant, as well as away from the rejected applicant in the context of the competition itself. Instead, you focus on the positive of someone getting hired. While the rejected applicant probably won’t be throwing a celebration party for the winning candidate, the subordinate clause here allows for speedy redirection to a consolation prize.

Redirection is key to this type of bad news’ effectiveness because it quickly shifts the reader’s attention to an alternative to what they were seeking in the first place. Some kind of consolation prize (e.g., a coupon or store credit) helps soothe the pain and will be appreciated as being better than nothing, at least. Even if you’re not able to offer the reader anything of value, you could at least say something nice. In that case, completing the sentence in the previous paragraph with an active-voice main clause could go as follows:

. . . we wish you success in your continued search for employment.

This way, you avoid saying anything negative while still clearly rejecting the applicant.

8.3.2.4: Positive Action Closing

As we’ve seen in previous explorations of message organization (e.g., §6.1.7 on email), the closing here involves action information. If your redirection involves some alternative, such as a recommendation to apply elsewhere, some follow-up details here would help the reader focus on the future elsewhere rather than getting hung up on you and your company’s decision. Your goals here are the following

  • Ensure that the reader understands the bad news without rehashing it
  • Remain courteous, positive, and forward-looking
  • End the conversation in such a way that you don’t invite further correspondence

The first and last goals are important because you don’t want the reader to respond asking you to clarify anything. The second goal is important because you ultimately want to appear respectable and avoid giving the reader a reason to smear your reputation in social media or proceed with legal action against you.

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8.3.3: Avoiding Disaster in Bad-news Messages

Delivering bad news can be dangerous if it angers the reader so much that they are motivated to fight back. If you’re not careful with what you say, that message can be used as evidence in a court case that, when read by a judge or jury, could compromise your position. You can lower the risk of being litigated against by following the general principles given below when delivering bad news.

8.3.3.1: Avoid Negative or Abusive Language

Sarcasm, profanity, harsh accusations, and abusive or insulting language may feel good to write in a fit of anger but, in the end, make everyone’s lives more difficult. When someone sends an inflammatory message and it’s interpreted by the reader as harmful to their reputation, it could legally qualify as libel that is legitimately actionable. Even if you write critically about a rival company’s product or service by stating (as if factually) that it’s dangerous, whereas your version of the product or service is safer and better, this can be considered defamation or libel. If said aloud and recorded, perhaps on a smart phone’s voice recorder, it is slander and can likewise be litigated. It’s much better to always write courteously and maturely, even under difficult circumstances, to avoid fallout that involves expensive court proceedings.

8.3.3.2: Avoid Oversharing but Tell the Truth

When your job is to provide a convincing rationale that might make the recipient of bad news accept it as reasonable, be careful with what details you disclose. When rejecting a job applicant, for instance, you must be especially careful not to lay all your cards on the table by sharing the scoring sheets of the winning and rejected candidates, nor even summarize them. Though that would give them full picture, it would open you up to a flood of complaints and legal or human-rights challenges picking apart every little note. Instead, you would simply wish the rejected candidate luck in their ongoing job search. When you must provide detail, avoid saying anything bad about anyone so that you can’t be accused of libel and taken to court for it. Provide only as much information as is necessary to provide a convincing rationale.

At the same, it’s important that you tell the truth so that you can’t be challenged on the details. If you are inconsistent or contradictory in your explanation, it may invite scrutiny and accusations of lying. Even making false claims by exaggerating may give the reader the wrong impression, which can lead to serious consequences if acted upon. Though some might say that omitting the truth is a form of lying, telling the truth selectively is the necessary compromise of a professional constrained by competing obligations to both the organization they represent and the reader who they don’t want to anger or severely disappoint.

8.3.3.3: Respect the Recipient’s Privacy

Criticizing an employee in a group email or memo—even if the criticism is fair—is mean, unprofessional, and an excellent way of opening yourself to a world of trouble. People who call out others in front of a group create a chilly climate in the workplace, one that leads to fear, loathing, and a loss of productivity among employees, not to mention legal challenges for possible libel. Called-out employees may even resort to sabotaging the office with misbehaviour such as vandalism, cyberattacks, or theft to get even. Always maintain respect and privacy when communicating bad news as a matter of proper professionalism (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 17.1).

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8.3.4: Crisis Communications

A rumour that the CEO is ill pulls down the stock price. A plant explosion kills several workers and requires evacuating residents in several surrounding city blocks. Risk management seeks to address such risks, including prevention as well as liability, but emergency and crisis situations happen anyway. Employees also make errors in judgment that can damage the public perception of a company. The mainstream media does not lack stories involving infidelity, addiction, or abuse that require a clear response from a company’s standpoint. In this chapter we address the basics of a crisis communication plan, focusing on key types of information during an emergency:

  • What is happening?
  • Is anyone in danger?
  • How big is the problem?
  • Who reported the problem?
  • Where is the problem?
  • Has a response started?
  • What resources are on-scene?
  • Who is responding so far?
  • Is everyone’s location known? (Mallet, Vaught, & Brinch, 1999)

You will be receiving information from the moment you know a crisis has occurred, but without a framework or communication plan to guide you, valuable information may be ignored or lost. These questions help you quickly focus on the basics of “who, what, and where” in the crisis situation.

A crisis communication plan is the prepared scenario document that organizes information into responsibilities and lines of communication prior to an event. If an emergency arises when you already have a plan in place, each person knows his or her role and responsibilities from a common reference document. Overall effectiveness can be enhanced with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for an effective and swift response. The plan should include four elements:

  • Crisis communication team members with contact information
  • Designated spokesperson
  • Meeting place/location
  • Media plan with procedures

A crisis communication team includes people who can decide what actions to take, carry out those actions, and offer expertise or education in the relevant areas.

By designating a spokesperson prior to an actual emergency, your team addresses the inevitable need for information in a proactive manner. People will want to know what happened and where to get further details about the crisis. Lack of information breeds rumours that can make a bad situation worse. The designated spokesperson should be knowledgeable about the organization and its values; be comfortable in front of a microphone, camera, and media lights; and be able to stay calm under pressure.

Part of your communication crisis plan should focus on where you will meet to coordinate communicate and activities. In case of a fire in your house, you might meet in the front yard. In an organization, a designated contingency building or office some distance away from your usual place of business might serve as a central place for communication in an emergency that requires evacuating your building. Depending on the size of your organization and its facilities, the emergency plan may include exit routes, hazardous materials procedures (WHMIS), and policies for handling bomb threats, for example. Safety is of course the priority, but in terms of communication, the goal is to eliminate confusion about where people are, where they need to be, and where information is coming from.

Whether or not evacuation is necessary when a crisis occurs, your designated spokesperson will gather information and carry out your media plan. They will need to make quick judgments about which information to share, how to phrase it, and whether certain individuals need to be notified of facts before they become public. The media and public will want to get reliable information, which is preferable to mere spin or speculation. Official responses help clarify the situation for the public, but an unofficial interview can make the tragedy personal and attract unwanted attention. Remind employees to direct all inquiries to the official spokesperson and to never speak anonymously or “off the record.”

Enable your spokesperson to have access to the place you indicated as your crisis contingency location to coordinate communication and activities, and allow them to prepare and respond to inquiries. When crisis communication is handled in a professional manner, it seeks not to withhold information or mislead, but to minimize the “spin damage” from the incident by providing necessary facts even if they are unpleasant or even tragic (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 17.3).

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8.3.5: Direct-approach Bad-news Messages

We’ve so far looked at expressing bad news using the indirect approach, but is it ever right to deliver bad news using the direct approach? Are there occasions where you can or should be upfront about the bad news? In the following situations, yes, it’s certainly appropriate to deliver bad news by getting right to the point:

  • When the bad news isn’t that bad:
    • In the case of small price or rate increases, customers won’t be devastated by having to pay more. Indeed, inflation makes such increases an expected fact of life.
    • If your job involves routinely delivering criticism because you’re a Quality Assurance specialist, the people who are used to receiving recommendations to improve their work will appreciate the direct approach. Some organizations even require direct-approach communications for bad news as a policy because it is more time-efficient.
  • When you know that the recipient prefers or requires the direct approach: Though the indirect approach is intended as a nice way to deliver bad news, some people would rather you be blunt. “Give it to me straight, doc. I’m a grown-up. I can take it,” they might say. Since a message must always be tailored to the audience, getting permission for taking the direct approach is your cue to follow through with exactly that. Not doing so will arouse the angry response you would have expected otherwise.
  • When you’re short on time or space: One of the hallmarks of the indirect approach is that it takes more words than a direct-approach message (see Table 6.1.5 for comparative examples). If time is limited or you’re constrained in how much space you have to write, taking the direct approach is justifiable.
  • When the indirect approach hasn’t worked: If this is the third time you’ve had to tell a client to pay their invoice and the first two were nicely-worded indirect messages that the recipient ignored, take the kid-gloves off and issue a stern warning of the consequences of not paying. You may need to threaten legal action or say you’ll refer the account to a collection agency, and you may need to put it in bold so that you’re sure the reader won’t miss it.
  • When the reader may miss the bad news: You may determine from profiling your audience and their literacy level that they might not understand indirect-approach bad news (see Step 1.2 in the writing process in §2.2 on analyzing the audience). If your reader doesn’t have a strong command of English vocabulary and misses words here and there, they may not pick up on the buried bad news past the mid-point of a challenging message.

In the above situations, structure your message following the same three-part organization we’ve seen elsewhere (e.g., §6.1.5§6.1.7 on email parts):

  1. Opening: State the bad news right up front.
  2. Body: Briefly explain why the bad news happened.
  3. Closing: Express confidence in continued business relations with a goodwill statement and provide any action information such as contact instructions should the recipient require further information.

Of course, clarity and brevity in such messages is vital to maintaining friendly relations with your audiences (Guffey et al., 2016, p. 190).

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Key Takeaway

key iconWrite carefully when addressing negative situations, such as delivering bad news, usually by burying the bad news after a buffer and rationale, and following it with redirection to minimize the harm that the message might cause.

Exercises

1. Think of a time when you were given bad news by email or letter, such as when you were told that a warranty couldn’t be honoured for the type of damage inflicted on your product or your application was rejected. How well did it fulfill or fail to fulfill the seven goals of delivering bad news (see §8.3.1 and §8.3.3)?

2. Sales have decreased for two consecutive quarters at your business. You must inform your sales team that their hours and base pay will be reduced by 20 percent if the company is to break even this quarter. While you may have a few members of your sales team that are underperforming, you can’t afford to be short-staffed now, so you must keep the entire team for the time being. Write negative news messages in both the direct and indirect approach informing your sales team of the news following the advice in §8.3.2 and §8.3.5 above.

3. Research a crisis in your area of training or career field. What communication issues were present and how did they affect the response to the crisis? If the situation was handled well, what are the major takeaways? If handled poorly, what do you think you would have done differently following the general guidelines in §8.3.4 above?

References

Guffey, M. E., Loewy, D., Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of business communication (8th Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson.

Lehman, C. M., DuFrene, D, & Murphy, R. (2013). BCOM (1st Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.

Mallet, L., Vaught, C., & Brinch, M. (1999). The emergency communication triangle. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Research Laboratory.

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8.3: Negative Messages by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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