How to give bad news (and still sleep at night)

Jayne Dalmer | February 21, 2018

Imagine your job is to coordinate and communicate one of the largest changes an organisation has been through. This change means a lot of people will lose jobs — in New Zealand and around the world.

You’ve paid the change consultants; you’ve ‘stress-tested’ your staff; you’ve created a consultation and communication plan.

You’ve read all the advice on communicating change. You know that:

But what does it mean to write authentically and transparently?

Image, howling wolf pup.

Bad news is painful. Image by Pixabay / CC0

Use clarity and familiarity to connect with readers

Being transparent means creating simple messages about why you are changing and what the changes mean for people. It means explaining what’s driving the change and being realistic about the downsides.

Face-to-face conversations should be your first choice for difficult messages.

Then every letter, email, or report needs to be written with your reader foremost in mind. This isn’t a time to put yourself first.

Lose the business jargon, abstract language, and pretentious tone.

I heard recently about a government organisation that told staff their jobs no longer existed by writing:

‘You are deemed to have an affected status.’ (Thus shall it be so ordained!)

This organisation communicated its final decisions about office closures almost entirely in the passive voice and used phrases like:

‘A tranched approach will be undertaken.’ (Translation: ‘We take no responsibility and we’re going to take our time.’)

Image, two giraffe heads looking in opposite directions.

Face to face conversations are best for bad news. Image by Pixabay / CC0

Order your writing with your reader in mind

If you’re giving people bad news in writing, explain why you’re writing at the beginning — respect their time and feelings, and don’t make them hunt through paragraphs of text to find the main message. (Staff are unlikely to care about your ongoing commitment to your strategic vision until they know whether they have a job or not.)

Use phrases like, ‘I am sorry to tell you…’ Thank and acknowledge people for the work they have been doing, and show empathy. Anticipate likely questions and answer them clearly and respectfully.

Follow your main message with action — what happens next. What does your staff member have to do next, or what are you going to do next?

Avoid euphemisms — use precise words and familiar everyday language. Readers trust writers who use familiar words and short sentences.

Don’t do what this organisation did and describe a job loss as an opportunity:

‘…the opportunity for employees in the aforementioned select areas to proactively “hand raise” and be considered for separation.’

Finally, offer help and alternatives. And make sure you honour any commitments you make.

Image, glove with bye text over face.

Write with empathy and you create the conditions for people to ‘leave well’. Image by Trinity Kubassek/ CC0

Evaluate and learn as you go

Throughout any change period, you need to keep communicating. Talk to people. You can help build a shared understanding of what’s going on by setting up lots of opportunities to talk and listen — Q&A sessions, intranet sessions, webinars, face-to-face meetings. Always use language that connects with people and shows respect.  Measure, learn, and refine as you go — gather real-time feedback on how people are receiving your communication.

Bad news will remain bad news, but people are more likely to understand why and ‘leave well’ if you communicate clearly and with empathy. In future, they might be the person holding the gate open for you to walk through.

Write’s writing workshops can help you communicate clearly, concisely, and with the right tone — even when the news isn’t bright.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.