4 Steps to Communicating Bad News at Work

by Betty Lochner on October 30, 2012

Have you ever been in a situation at work where there is something big going down?  Maybe it’s a reduction in force, or a reorganization, or some other bad news that needs to be shared and you are the one who gets to share it.

As managers, we often make the mistake of trying to break the news gently and to spare feelings. We may use words that express our own regret, or explain that the situation is beyond our control such as “we are all victims of the great recession.”

And while all that may be true, it provides more comfort to the giver than the receiver.

Whether directly or indirectly affected, employees really just want and need clear, unemotional information. They want to know the basics – what, why, when and how:

What is happening to me? Why is it happening to me? When will it happen to me? How will I be affected?

All other information, no matter how well meaning, may actually do more harm than good by causing confusion or overly complicating the message.

So, how do you communicate bad  news well?

Here are 4 steps you can follow that will help you be successful. 

1. Keep it simple and in person

Keep your comments short and on point. Do not build up to a conclusion, ramble on, or tell stories. Instead, state the purpose of your communication right up front. People are far more likely to hear what you have to say if they are not trying to anticipate your next sentence.  

And, don’t even think about giving the news by e-mail.  Do it in person to the entire group that is effected. 

2. Provide clarity and answers

Make time for questions and be prepared to provide answers. There is nothing more frustrating than being offered the opportunity to ask questions and then receive incomplete, vague, inconsistent or inaccurate answers.  Be honest. People much prefer hearing the truth than trying to guess what’s really going to happen.

It’s okay to say “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out and get back to you.”  Then do that.

3. Write it down

After you’ve shared the news in person, put it all in writing. The emotion of the moment often makes it difficult for people to fully understand everything that is being explained to them. And, even in the best of times, each of us processes information differently. Make sure you provide employees with hard copy versions of all verbal communications,  along with additional supporting documents and resources.

An ongoing Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) resource can also be useful for capturing and sharing employee questions.

4. Follow up

Make sure that there are appropriate resources available outside of your agency.  Anticipate needs and offer resources right up front – maybe it’s counseling,  job search workshops, or whatever fits the situation. Don’t wait for employees to show signs that they need support. Anticipate that they will and be ready for the inquiries.

Provide employees with names and contact information for individuals or organizations that can provide them with further information or support.These can include internal HR and department contacts, benefit providers and outside support agencies. Check that the details you give out are accurate by actually testing phone numbers and email addresses.

Your key to success is to keep communication open and to be accessible.  It will go a long way to sharing bad news in the best way possible.


Betty Lochner is the Owner of Cornerstone Coaching & Training. She specializes in personal and organizational transformation and is the author of  Dancing with Strangers: Communication skills for transforming your life at work and at home. And, it’s now available on Kindle – Check it out.

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