Delivering Bad News Without Being the Bad Guy


Not that this is groundbreaking information, but bad news is usually the opposite of good because it's bad; bad for the recipient, yes, but also pretty awful for the person delivering the news. You might know him, he's the same guy you want to shoot in the phrase, 'Don't shoot the messenger'. We're all familiar.

I'm assuming here, but we've all probably been on both the giving and receiving end of bad news. I have had way too many experiences delivering and receiving bad news and in all three major categories: work, personal, and medical. I'm an overachiever.

I have to say, didn't love the process, didn't love the topic, didn't love being the messenger, and didn't love being the messengee (for today only, it's a word). So -- now that we've got that out of the way, we can at least attempt to make the process more painless -- especially if you are tasked with delivering less-than-happy news.

Being the bearer of bad news falls in the category of 'things I'd rather not do' -- along with cleaning bathrooms, fighting off a bear, or installing new software. In all these cases, it's best to be smart about it. And quick. Especially in the case of the bathroom. And the bear.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you have to share the not-so-great with the not-so-prepared in a business setting. These tips can work in personal happenings as well, with a little editing; for example, if you are attempting to fire your teenager. I'm kidding, sadly, but one can dream. I digress - here we go:

Honesty Really is the Best Policy

When delivering unpleasant news, be honest. The person on the other side is already dealing with heightened emotions, and he or she will smell a lie. Be truthful about the situation, and give the other individual a clear understanding of circumstances.

The Early Bird Is Not the Worm

It's tempting to sit on bad news in hopes of it just disappearing before our eyes -- like youth or a pan of brownies. Resist the wait-and-wonder scenario. Even if something is top secret, (a layoff for example), chances are the news is already leaking out and polluting the water. By sharing information first, you position yourself as an empathetic and straightforward equal, which is much nicer than the alternative (read: weasel).

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Whatever you say can and will be held against you in the court of colleagues. Make sure you are sharing the same information with your employees, because word travels fast. Fight the temptation to tweak the information based on the person you are dealing with at the moment; and don't for a moment think that your individual conversations will stay private (remember Monica Lewinsky?). If you are having 12 layoff meetings in the course of two days, the other 11 are talking or texting or emailing about what went down in your office. By keeping the information identical, truthful, and succinct, you have a greater chance of keeping the chaos at bay and not causing more trauma for your employees AND yourself.

It's Personal

Speak to each and every individual as you would like to be spoken to and do it face-to-face. We've heard the horror stories of colleagues being fired over conference calls and via email. Some employees found out they were fired when their names were no longer in the company directory. Ouch. Speak directly to your colleague, allow them to ask questions and absorb the information. Bottom line, follow the golden rule.

Offer A Solution

If your organization offers career or personal counseling, share that information immediately, thus acknowledging that the situation is difficult. Individuals in a tough spot are reeling emotionally and their mind is already fast-forwarding to the future days, weeks and even years ahead. Thoughts of retirement, reputation, and rebounding are crashing around in their head -- as it would be for anyone in the same position. By sharing a few ideas that may be of help to them, you are conceding that nobody would be able to bounce back without a bit of support -- and they don't have to either.

By being kind, empathetic, honest and straightforward, you can at least know that you made a tough situation a bit easier than it could have been. Learning how to be the messenger who doesn't get shot is one of those skills that we wish we never needed, but do.