Don't Give Bad News Badly!

Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Don’t Give Bad News Badly

By Margo Boster

In the 2009 movie Up in the Air, George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man companies hire to tell employees they are being terminated.  Bingham believes the bad news should be delivered in person – short, to the point, and with respect.  Ironically, the company for which Bingham works, begins cutting costs by conducting layoffs via videoconferencing.  As one can imagine, the change does not go well.

Delivering bad news is part of every manager’s job description.  Delivering bad news is unpleasant, but it can’t be avoided, so it’s good to learn how to do it as effectively and painlessly as possible.

I recently had to deliver some bad news.  While it would have been easier to have someone else deliver the message or to hide behind an email, I didn’t.  Instead, I sat down with the person and had a conversation.  With genuine respect, I said, “I need to talk with you about this situation.  Unfortunately, we aren’t going to be able to continue as we have in the past.”   While it didn’t change the decision, neither did it complicate the situation by making the recipient feel devalued.

Coaching Tip:

To deliver bad news effectively and with respect, start with these suggestions:

1)      Be Clear About Your Goal:  Understand the situation, decide what you want to say, and be clear to yourself on the desired outcome.  For instance is your goal to give an employee direction for improvement, or to develop documentation for subsequent dismissal?

2)      Get to the Point:  Leading in with casual conversation doesn’t soften the blow – instead, it is unfair and dishonest.  Just get to the point.

3)      Be Honest:  We have often heard about the Oreo cookie approach used in giving feedback — the bad news (cream filling) is surrounded by two bits of good news (chocolate layers).  Just be honest, not cruel, and get to the point. Sometimes trying to be nice results in being vague about your message.

4)      Don’t Make Excuses:  Making excuses gives false hope.  As soon as you give the excuse, you are simply opening up opportunities for arguments if not false hope.  Instead, simply state the facts.

5)      Respect Discomfort: Both theirs and yours. Your discomfort at giving bad news and theirs in receiving it is a natural part of being human.

6)      Don’t give bad news by email: suck it up and have the meeting in person or by phone.

What are your experiences to giving and receiving bad news?  Do you have examples of situations that were handled well – in addition to those handled badly?  What lessons can we learn from these experiences?


 About the Author:

margo-boster-2013Margo Boster specializes in providing highly effective leadership and management development that includes coaching, assessments and organizational support.

Margo has a long history of building organizations and helping people within those organizations achieve goals they believed were beyond their reach. With more than 30 years of professional experience in senior leadership, she combines proven, real world experience with the education and training to help her clients thrive. Contact her at, or call (480) 359-6147.