The bearer of bad news

Here's how to do it right

It has happened in virtually every office. A boss calls an employee into his office, closes the door and a conversation such as the following takes place:

Boss (with averted gaze): “Johnson, I hate to be the one to tell you this. You see, I like having you around. You know that I think you’re a terrific person. But the truth of the matter is that, professionally, you’re not performing up to snuff.”

Johnson (with pained look): “So what are you trying to say, that I’m fired?”

Boss (with downcast eyes): “I wish I didn’t have to do it. You’re really a great person, so it was that much harder for me to have to tell you.”

Bad news isn’t easy to hear. But it doesn’t help matters when it’s delivered the wrong way, as in the example above. “Most of us are never taught how to give bad or difficult news well,” says Barbara Pachter, president and CEO of Pachter & Associates, a business communications training firm based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and co-author, with Susan F. Magee, of The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Know to Handle Conflicts at Work, Home, and in Life (Marlowe & Co., $22.95). “Consequently, a lot of people blurt things out, make inappropriate jokes or avoid the situation completely.”

But being the bearer of bad news, however difficult the task, is one of the things supervisors and managers must do. Pachter offers five easy tips for making it easier:

  • Talk in private. The weekly 10 o’clock meeting is the wrong time to announce that one of your colleagues was passed over for Employee of the Year. He or she should first hear the news in private.
  • Forgo “doomed” comments. Don’t you hate it when someone says, “I have some bad news,” or “I don’t know how to tell you this,” before they drop the other shoe? Make it a point to be straightforward and get the message across quickly.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t apologize too much or make excuses. For example, a plain, “You didn’t get the job because. . . . I’m sorry,” will do.
  • Stand firm. Stick to your position when someone tries to persuade you to change your mind. Let them know that you understand their stance, but that you’ve made a decision.
  • Give alternatives or, if possible, assistance. For instance, you may not be able to give someone the job because they don’t have the necessary skills. But you can tell them where to go to get them.
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