Career Development

Delivering Bad News To Employees in a Good Way

February 22, 2021

One of the responsibilities of a manager, supervisor or human resources representative is to deliver bad news to employees occasionally. While it can be tempting to use small talk and minimization to reduce the discomfort of bad news, that can ultimately lead to hurt feelings. It's important to use specific techniques and language when imparting undesirable news on an employee to maintain respect and clarity. In this article, we describe scenarios in which managers might have to deliver bad news, explain why it's important to give this news effectively, provide steps for how to do so and offer tips and examples.

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Reasons for delivering bad news to employees

Team leaders, supervisors, managers and human resource representatives are the most likely employees to deliver unwelcome news to their colleagues. A few of the most common types of workplace bad news include:

  • Not receiving a promotion
  • Not receiving a raise
  • Increased work hours
  • Change in work location
  • Change in benefits
  • Loss of the job
  • Poor performance review
  • Downsizing
  • Layoffs
  • Closing an office or branch
  • Denial of professional development or training request

In all of these and similar scenarios, you should approach the conversation with your employee or team with the utmost respect and transparency to help the receiver of the news continue their work in a positive manner.

Related: How To Conduct an Employee Performance Review (With Template and Examples)

Why is it important to effectively deliver bad news to employees?

If you're responsible for delivering unpleasant news to a colleague, you might be speaking for the decisions of higher-level executives while trying to support the emotions of the employee or team. Representing and understanding both groups can present a challenge when deciding how to present the bad news. Above all else, it's important to speak honestly and with empathy when delivering unpleasant news. This way, the receiver of the information knows the decision is final but also knows that you, and the company as a whole, respect and care about them.

Related: Termination Versus Layoff: What's the Difference?

How to deliver bad news to employees

When it's time to deliver bad news to employees, follow these steps to ensure you're prepared and confident:

  1. Research and prepare.
  2. Practice.
  3. Avoid small talk.
  4. Use direct language.
  5. Provide context.
  6. Give time for a response.
  7. Establish next steps.

1. Research and prepare

Before meeting with the employee or team, gather the following information:

  • The reason for the decision
  • Who made the decision
  • Potential questions from the employee or team and the answers to resolve them

Preparing this information in advance will make the conversation more manageable as you'll be able to answer any questions the employee or team might have about the decision's basis.

2. Practice

If you're new to delivering bad news, rehearse your conversation. Write out talking points for reference. Enlist the help of a friend or family member to practice the conversation. Ask them to respond in different ways to the news so that you can practice responding to varied emotions and questions about the information.

3. Avoid small talk

When meeting with the employee or team, avoid the instinct to begin the conversation with small talk or a separate discussion. Begin by immediately addressing the unpleasant news.

4. Use direct language

Use easy-to-understand language that explains the information or decision with clarity. Try not to use business jargon or to reframe the news so that it seems less severe. Be honest and direct to ensure your employee or team understands the information you're sharing.

5. Provide context

Once you've shared the actual news, explain who made the decision, why they made that choice and any other related and relevant information to provide context. During this explanation, it's okay to show empathy and share your feelings with the employee or team, but be sure you continue to support the decision and maintain your position as a representative.

6. Give time for a response

Allow the employee or team time to ask questions and share their feelings. If necessary, enforce the finality of the decision, but offer sympathy and empathy for any sense of loss or other emotions that may arise from the receiver or receivers.

7. Establish next steps

End the conversation by discussing how to move on from the decision or information. Offer advice or guidance with specific steps or actions the employee or team can take to make positive career steps with the company.

Tips for delivering bad news to employees

When delivering bad news to employees, consider these tips to keep the conversation as positive and productive as possible:

  • Be direct. Address the information immediately. Be clear in your language and share the facts with no unnecessary embellishments.
  • Be honest. Provide factual information to your employee or team. Avoid trying to make the bad news seem less severe than it is and offer clarity.
  • Take responsibility. If you're the decision-maker, take responsibility and offer your reasoning for the decision alongside empathy and understanding.
  • Allow time for a response. Give the employee or team time to respond to the information. They may have questions or just need to share their frustrations. Use active listening and empathy to ensure the employees feel heard.
  • Focus on the future. Make sure the last topic during the conversation is about positive steps forward for the future. Try to end the discussion with hope and steps for action.
  • Follow through. Whatever the initial decision and resulting steps, make sure you follow through with them. Doing so ensures your employees see your honesty, transparency and decisiveness.
  • Be respectful. Offer the utmost respect to your employee or team as they process the bad news.
  • Be caring. Show empathy and sympathy to your employees or team as they express their emotions following the delivery of the information.
  • Focus on the employee. Keep the focus of the conversation on your employee's or team's feelings and not your own.

Examples of delivering bad news to employees

Use these examples from a few different scenarios to help you structure your own bad news delivery:

The employee did not receive a promotion

In this scenario, you're sharing with an employee that they did not receive a promotion they applied for.

Example: "We did not select you for the promotion. The hiring team selected a candidate with more leadership experience, and while I think you would perform well in the role, gaining more experience before promoting makes sense. Do you have any questions or anything you'd like to share?" [Allow the employee time to respond.] "Let's discuss how you can gain more leadership experience in the coming year."

The team was denied a training request

In this scenario, company leadership denied a research team's request to attend professional development training.

Example: "We can't send the team to training at this time. Unfortunately, we don't have the professional development budget right now to send the entire group to this out-of-state training. Do you have any questions or thoughts?" [Allow the team time to respond.] "Are there any other professional development opportunities in the local area we could consider for next quarter?"

The employee received a poor performance review

In this scenario, an employee has received a poor performance review and must meet with their manager about it.

Example: "Your performance review rated you as ineffective in several areas. I know you're a hard worker and capable of performing at a higher level, but unfortunately the data did not show that for this year. What do you think impacted your production?" [Allow time for the employee to respond.] "Let's discuss some strategies and training opportunities that will improve your performance."


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