Much of the research on communicating bad news discusses the fine line between being clear and being positive. Though most text books recommend the indirect approach as the norm to writing bad news letters and focuses heavily on how to be positive, some research indicates that readers are likely to either not respond to positivity or that they may even respond negatively.

Kitty O. Locker conducted a study with college students where they responded to fictional letters, one denying credit and one denying acceptance to graduate school. Her results indicated that there was no significant difference in responses to letters with or without positive openings or positive closings. She also found no significant difference in responses to letters with the rationale either before or after the bad news. Thus she recommends "because buffers [or positive openings] do not cause readers to respond more positively, we should stop advising them as the norm". (29) And she concludes that in ending a bad news letter "wishing the reader well might make sense, but in a situation where even bland positives are not appropriate, simply ending the message--even if, therefore, the negative is last--is better than writing a paragraph that seems insensitive or fatuous". (31)

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Jared Sandberg discusses bosses' attempts to be positive when delivering bad news and how these attempts can actually lead to breakdown in communication, leading to mistrust, rather than showing respect to readers. In their study of rejection letters, Maria Waung and Thomas S. Brice found that one of the most significant factors in negative responses to rejection letters was the lack of an explicit statement of rejection. So even though positivity is important, research also indicates that being clear about bad news is equally important.


  • Locker, Kitty O. "Factors in Reader Responses to Negative Letters: Experimental Evidence for Changing What We Teach". Journal of Business and Technical Communication: Sage Publications, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 1999, pp. 5-48.
  • Sandberg, Jared. "Bosses Often Sugarcoat Their Worst News, But Staffers Don't Bite". Wall Street Journal - Eastern Edition: Vol. 243, Issue 78, 21 April 2004, p. B1.
  • Brice, Thomas S. and Marie Waung. "Communicating Negative Hire Decisions to Applicants: Fulfilling Psychological Contracts". Journal of Business & Psychology: Vol. 15, Issue 2, Winter 2000, p. 247.