41 Giving Bad News
A “bad news message” is one that communicates news that the reader may find upsetting. You need to convey information clearly so that the reader understands the news but you also need to ensure that you maintain a good relationship with the reader.
After completing this chapter, you will be able to
- define what a bad news message is
- use an indirect writing style to convey bad news (Meyer, 2020, p. 256-262)
- identify what phrasing to use (and to not use) when giving bad news (Meyer, 2020, p. 254-255)
- understand limitations of the indirect style (Meyer, 2020, p. 262)
What is a Bad News Message?
To employees, you might turn down a suggestion or invitation, refuse a promotion, or give a low performance evaluation. You might need to make unpopular changes to a company policy or cancel an event that staff were expecting and looking forward to.
To customers or clients, you might need to communicate a price increase, service cancellation, or change in policy. Perhaps you need to refuse a customer’s request for credit or for a product refund.
A bad news message is any communication that is likely to cause a negative emotional response in your reader. You need to manage this communication carefully because you need your reader to understand and accept the bad news…and you don’t want your reader to feel negatively toward you or the organization you represent.
There are two ways to convey bad news: you can use the direct approach, which you learned about in the Writing Routine Direct Messages chapter, or you can use an indirect approach. Determining which approach you use will depend on the corporate culture and style guides of your organization and on the particular situation.
If the bad news is minor or expected, or if you have a long-standing relationship with the receiver of the message and you know that they prefer directness, then you can use the direct approach. In the direct approach, you state the bad news right away, and then you give an explanation and, if possible, offer an alternative. This approach is very clear and saves the reader time.
However, if the bad news is not expected and is likely to cause your reader to have a negative, emotional reaction, you should consider using the indirect approach. In the indirect approach, you do NOT give the bad news right away. Instead, you build up to the bad news by giving an explanation before the bad news. This strategy helps your reader to accept the bad news. If you had given the bad news first, your reader might be too upset to keep reading and so they might miss the explanation and any alternative that you’ve been able to offer. Your goal in communicating the bad news is to ensure that your reader understands the message and that you maintain goodwill with your reader so that you can continue your business relationship.
No matter which approach you use, be sure to put your reader’s needs first and use an appropriate tone. Be sincere, focus on the facts, use positive language where possible, avoid editorializing or apologizing profusely, and never state the bad news more than once.
The subject line sets the tone for a message. For negative responses, you can simply reply with the original subject line. If you are writing a letter, you can drop the subject line altogether if it is too blunt. You will need to type a new subject line if the negative information you pass on is crucial to action-taking and decision-making.
Select the type of subject line that best suits your purpose:
Positive subject lines highlight solutions in problem-oriented messages and persuade readers of the benefits of potentially unpopular policies or changes. However, a subject line should never overstate positives to the point of misleading readers. The following subject line is from a message announcing an increase in monthly deductions for employee benefits:
Neutral subject lines signal the topic but without referring to the bad news. Use them in routine memos to peers and subordinates, especially when the bad news is minor or expected.
Subject: Water Shut Off Sunday, October 5
Subject: Subscription Rate Increase, Effective March 31
Negative subject lines are can be used to command attention for serious internal problems and issues that might otherwise be ignored. They sometimes headline brief e-mails alerting readers to situations for which the readers are not at fault.
Subject: Error in Q3 Sales Data [when the error is your own]
Subject: Downgrade to AA Credit Rating
Indirect Writing Approach
In order to lessen the emotional reaction of the reader while still clearly conveying the bad news, you can use an indirect writing approach.
Four Part Indirect Writing Plan
Image from Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide, 5th ed. (2020), p. 263.
Instead of beginning with a blunt announcement of the bad news, the approach of an indirect writing plan gradually eases the reader into the news and thereby reduces the impact of the bad news.
The main message is embedded — delayed until the reader has been prepared for it. This unique organization makes the message readable and easy to tolerate from beginning to end. The advantage of such a plan is clear: a reader who grasps the reasons for a negative decision or assessment is less likely to react negatively, toss the message aside, or take the bad news personally.
Bad News Message Outline and Example Message using the Indirect Approach 
|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 11:57 p.m. 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.|
Opening: Buffer the Bad News
The buffer (one to three sentences) puts the reader in a more agreeable frame of mind, helping to neutralize the bad news when it is finally revealed. It is a meaningful, neutral statement that establishes rapport with the reader without forecasting the bad news, and is particularly useful in messages intended for superiors, customers, or job applicants. A buffer can be an expression of agreement, appreciation, or general principle or a chronology of past communications.
Avoid negative language (e.g., no, not, cannot, refuse, deny, unfortunately, regrettably, and the prefixes un- and non-).
buffer A meaningful, neutral statement that cushions the shock of bad news.
An effective buffer never misleads the reader into thinking that positive news will follow. Instead, it guides the reader toward the explanation, often by planting a keyword that carries over to the next paragraph. Internal messages on routine matters may not require buffers, but messages intended for superiors, customers, or job applicants benefit from the sensitivity this device helps to show. Writing a good buffer can be difficult, so let the situation govern the type of buffer you use.
Middle: Explain the Bad News
An explanation of the bad news is the most important part of a negative message because it prepares the reader for the refusal or denial – but it does NOT explicitly state the bad news yet. Give readers the opportunity to see that the unfavourable decision is based on valid, legitimate reasons. If they can understand your reasons, they can more easily accept your news.
Stick to the facts and avoid editorializing. Focus on your strongest reason or reasons for saying no, being careful not to divulge confidential, legally sensitive information that may be damaging to you or your company. Avoid expressing a personal opinion that might be mistaken for the view of your organization or criticism of its policies. Also avoid statements that imply you doubt a reader’s honesty. Your goal is to clarify the decision by putting it in perspective briefly and tactfully.
Refer to company policy as needed but don’t hide behind it. Unless you want to distance yourself from negative information by using an official tone, avoid mechanically restating company policy to justify your decision (Our company policy forbids the conversion of lease payments to purchases). Instead, tactfully point to the reason why the policy is reasonable, fair, or beneficial (As our company is committed to keeping rates low, conversion of payments toward a purchase is not an available option).
Use positive or neutral words. Present your explanation in a constructive way to make the reader more receptive. Edit out words that are known to create resistance: impossible, unable, unacceptable, unwise, unwilling, difficulty, inconvenience, unwarranted, unreasonable. Your explanation should sound humane, transparent, and helpful. Also avoid phrases such as please understand and you surely understand that beg the reader to agree with you. Show respect by taking the matter seriously.
|Don’t Say||Do Say|
|I know how senseless this policy must seem, but it must be enforced||As our company is committed to keeping rates low, conversion of payments toward a purchase is not an available option|
|You claim / state that||You stated that|
Refer to company policy as needed but don’t hide behind it. Unless you want to distance yourself from negative information by using an official tone, avoid mechanically restating company policy to justify your decision. Instead, tactfully point to the reason why the policy is reasonable, fair, or beneficial.
Use positive or neutral words. Present your explanation in a constructive way to make the reader more receptive. Your explanation should sound humane, transparent, and helpful. Also avoid phrases such as please understand and you surely understand that beg the reader to agree with you. Show respect by taking the matter seriously.
Avoid words that are known to create resistance: impossible, unable, unacceptable, unwise, unwilling, difficulty, inconvenience, unwarranted, unreasonable.
Middle: State the Bad News
Withholding the bad news until after the explanation is fundamental to the indirect strategy. However, delaying tactics alone may not make disappointing or upsetting news any easier to accept. Saying no or revealing disappointing information doesn’t necessarily mean being negative. Use one or more de-emphasizing techniques to lessen its impact. Even with these techniques, it is still essential to state the bad news clearly, so readers will understand it the first time and won’t need to ask for clarification.
Put the bad news in a dependent clause. Dependent clauses de-emphasize what they convey because of their grammatical incompleteness. Readers are less likely to linger over clauses beginning with although, as, because, if, since, while, or whereas and more likely to focus on the independent clause in a complex sentence.
Suggest a compromise or an alternative. Readers like solutions. Alternatives emphasize what you or your company can do and show you are focused on solving the problem. Alternatives help to lift the sense of limitation readers may feel on receiving bad news. Give the alternative maximum impact by putting it in an independent clause in a complex sentence or in an independent clause on its own. Provide enough information for the reader to be able to act on the suggestion.
Use the passive voice. Passive-voice verbs allow you to describe an action without identifying who performed it. Facts stand out; personalities and their conflicts fade into the background. Use passive-voice constructions alone or as part of a dependent clause.
Use long sentences rather than short ones. Put the bad news in a sentence containing more than 15 words—long sentences tend to de-emphasize content.
Use positive language. Readers are more receptive when you present the glass as being half full. It is never advisable to make unrealistic promises or use overly effusive language, but you can avoid words and phrases that readers may perceive as antagonistic: we must refuse/reject/deny your request/disappoint you.
|Don’t Say||Do Say|
|We refuse to accept applications after March 15.||Applications will be accepted until March 15.|
Avoid spotlighting the bad news. Embed the bad news in the middle of a sentence or paragraph where it is less noticeable. Beginning with the bad news increases its shock value; ending with it encourages readers to dwell on it. Don’t let the bad news sit by itself in a single, high-emphasis paragraph; combine it with an explanation or alternative.
Imply the refusal. For this technique to be effective, the explanation must be clear and thorough. Here is an implied refusal for a request for software training for a group of 30 people:
However, implied refusals backfire if readers don’t grasp the negative information, putting you in the awkward position of having to send a second letter that states the news more directly.
End: Close with Goodwill
The closing is the last chance to repair goodwill and normalize relationships so that business can continue. A goodwill closing must be consistent with the overall tone and content of your message. Do not use cliched phrases that could sound insincere or cruel.
Don’t repeat the bad news, remind the reader of past problems, or hint at future difficulty. Words and phrases such as problem, difficulty, error, mistake, trouble, unfortunate situation, or inconvenience renew the bad feelings you have worked so hard to dispel. Instead focus on the problem’s resolution and look ahead to a continuing business relationship.
|Don’t Say||Do Say|
|There was a problem with the audit numbers.||We have resolved the audit numbers|
Do offer your good wishes to the reader. This step is more important when declining job applications and invitations or writing to customers. Your comments should sound genuine and conciliatory, not overdone (Thank you for the interest you have shown in our research and development program. I wish you every success in your future career.)
Don’t invite further correspondence unless you sincerely want contact. If the matter isn’t open to debate or discussion, don’t encourage the reader to believe your decision isn’t final by signing off with a suggestion of further contact. A goodwill closing should be the final step in encouraging the reader to accept the bad news and closing the door on further correspondence.
|Don’t Say||Do Say|
|Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this matter.||We wish you the best with your job search.|
Don’t apologize for having to say no, especially at the end of your message. A brief, sincere apology may be appropriate at the outset if the situation merits it, but unnecessary apologies later on can undermine your perceived authority and weaken your explanation. Apologies can sometimes expose organizations to legal liability, so exercise caution or seek legal counsel before issuing them.
Don’t take credit for helping the reader unless you have actually provided assistance. Even brief statements that are meant to boost the reader’s mood — such as I hope this information has been useful to you — ring false if you have done nothing for the reader.
Closings should be in keeping with the balance of your message. Readers who have just been let down can be upset by an upbeat complimentary close such as Cheers, mistaking its friendliness for sarcasm or flippancy.
Phrasing for Indirect Approaches
How you say something is as important as what you say. When giving bad news, be especially careful about your word choices and tone.
Tone in Bad News Messages
Tone is important in bad news messages. A tactful, neutral tone tailored to the situation puts readers in a receptive frame of mind and lowers their psychological resistance to a refusal. Avoid phrasing that is harsh, defensive, and accusatory, which can intensify readers’ feelings of anger and inadequacy.
Tips for an even, reader-friendly tone
When giving bad news,
- don’t plead with the reader
- Please understand…
- beware of mixed messages, for example, by expressing an unwillingness to comply when it is within your power to do so
- I am sorry that we have chosen not to…
- avoid statements based on assumptions that the reader will accept the bad news
- You will certainly agree / understand / appreciate…
- stick to facts and avoid stating opinions that can have legal consequences
- Our mistake could have caused….
- edit timid or overly apologetic statements that may weaken the reader’s confidence in your decision
- I am afraid that we cannot…
- avoid unnecessarily writer-centred remarks
- We cannot afford to / we must refuse / disappoint / reject…
- use expressions of sympathy carefully to avoid hinting at the bad news
- sorry / I regret / unfortunately
A positive emphasis, as long as it doesn’t mislead readers into expecting good news, can compensate for the sense of limitation a reader may feel in being denied. Sincerity and politeness are the best ways to let readers down gently and help them adjust to negative information.
The indirect strategy does have its drawbacks. When readers fail to find good or neutral news in the first few sentences, they may see through the delaying or “hedging” tactics of the buffered opening and explanation and suspect the true purpose of the message. When this happens, readers may see the lack of directness as manipulative rather than polite. Messages organized according to this pattern also tend to be longer, making greater demands on the reader’s time and patience.
Checklist: Giving Bad News Using the Indirect Approach
❑ For most bad-news messages, use an indirect-approach: buffer, explain, and de-emphasize the bad news and close with expressions of goodwill.
❑ Never mislead the reader by implying that the purpose of the message is to deliver good news.
❑ Use an appropriate subject line.
❑ Make sure the buffer is neutral and relevant
❑ Limit the explanation of the bad news to relevant facts and details arranged in a logical order. Make sure your reason is clear and logical.
❑ Avoid hiding behind company policy; instead, show how the policy is reasonable by explaining its purpose or benefits.
❑ State the bad news only once, clearly.
❑ Offer a counter-proposal or alternative if a good one is available and provide enough information for the reader to act on that alternative.
❑ Use neutral, respectful, and non-accusatory language to maintain goodwill.
❑ End positively with a goodwill-building statement not related to the bad news. Avoid clichés or remarks that suggest your decision isn’t final.
❑ Don’t invite further correspondence unless you truly want it.
Examples of Bad News Messages
Compare and evaluate these two messages. Which would you rather receive?
Example 1: An Ineffective Bad News Message
Example 2: An Effective Bad News Message
Images from Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide, 5th ed. (2020), pp. 264-265.
Announcing Bad News to Clients
The following message announces a substantial increase in membership dues for a professional association. Because higher dues could mean a substantial drop in membership, the message has a strong persuasive component. It begins by expressing appreciation to members for their contributions and by stressing, through the keyword services, the benefits of membership. News of the increase is minimized by the helpful suggestion to pay immediately and save. The closing conveys goodwill with a forward-looking emphasis. Typical of some bad news messages, the purpose of this letter is also persuasive in encouraging readers not just to note but also to accept the bad news.
Study this example of a bad news message and then answer the quiz questions below:
The Canadian Association of Business Management values the ground-breaking initiatives and active participation of its members. Thanks to a strong collective effort, the array of services and events now available to members has helped make our group the fastest-growing professional association in Canada.
Our mentorship program matches young members with those possessing years of experience in the industry. This program has been a success. Membership now includes a quarterly publication with the latest trade information and access to websites and online resources, including hundreds of trade publications. Although the cost of these services has led to an unavoidable increase in annual dues, we now offer a three-year membership for only $230—a $50 saving over the one-year membership rate.
To take advantage of this special rate, please complete and return the attached renewal form before December 31. We thank you for your past support and look forward to your continued participation in our organization.
- Meyer, C. (2020). Delivering unfavourable news. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (5th ed., pp. 251-288). Oxford. ↵
- Meyer, C. (2020). Delivering unfavourable news. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (5th ed., p. 263). Oxford. ↵
- Smith, J. (n.d.). Unit 26: Negative messages. In Communication at work. Kwantlen Polytechnic University. https://kpu.pressbooks.pub/communicationsatwork/chapter/8-3-negative-messages/ CC BY 4.0 ↵
- Meyer, C. (2020). Delivering unfavourable news. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (5th ed., pp. 264-265). Oxford. ↵