Beyond the writing

Be open about bad news

Because of the difficulty of walking the fine line between being both clear and respectful of your audience, it's tempting to avoid communicating bad news. However, unless it's trivial, it's necessary to communicate bad news. Paul Falcone, Director of International Human Resources at Paramount Pictures, stresses the importance of committing to keep your management informed even when it's bad news. And Howard High, Strategic Communications Manager at Intel Corporation, discusses openness and timeliness in communicating bad news to customers: "We would rather err on the side of being open and truthful so people don't ask, 'Why didn't you tell us about this problem? Why did you keep this a secret?'" He emphasizes the need to be the first to tell a customer about a problem with his products. (quoted in Ober, p. 291).

Written or oral?

Sometimes it's more appropriate to communicate bad news orally, whether on the phone or face-to-face. Sending bad news in an email can be perceived as insensitive, or your reader(s) can discount it. Other times, you will need to discuss the negative information, or the recipient of the bad news may need the opportunity to give feedback or explanation. Written communication is best when you need time to organize your information and when you need a written record. Research also shows that written communication tends to be more accurate and complete.

The strategies for communicating bad news orally are different than those for communicating bad news in writing. Most importantly, communicating bad news orally requires that you take time to listen and respond to the listener's emotions.

Negative communications whether written or oral are most effective when accompanied with confidence, listening skills, and positive feedback.


  • Falcone, Paul. "The Bearer of Bad News". HR Magazine: August 2003, p. 99.
  • Ober, Scott. Contemporary Business Communication. 5th Ed.: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2003, p. 290-91, 301.
  • "Delivering Bad News by Email is More Accurate, Less Painful, Study Suggests". Informs Online: 23 June 2000, (12 June 2001).
  • Lewis, Brian J. "There's No Easy Way to Say This". Journal of Management in Engineering: November/December 1999, p. 19.
  • "Advice From the Pros on the Best Way to Deliver Bad News". IOMA's Report on Customer Relationship Management: February 2003, p. 6.