How to Deliver Bad News at Work Badly


So, you have to tell your colleagues some bad news. And you want to do it in a way that gets everyone’s heart rates up and ensure no one sleeps well that night. We’re talking tossing and turning. In fact, your goal is to create team-wide angst and panic.

Well, don’t wing it! This is big. In fact, it’s so big, I’m sharing 15 tried-and-tested ways to deliver bad news in the worst way possible. Whether it’s a mistake you’ve made, or an upsetting update from a client, or overall industry turmoil, you can apply the following tips:

  1. Speed walk up to the person’s desk and very loudly—but through gritted teeth—say, “The worst has happened.”
  2. Curse loudly at your computer. Then turn to your team slowly and say, “We need to talk.”
  3. Shake your head as a meeting starts and say to no one in particular, “So much for Dry January.”
  4. Hand out boxes to everyone for their desks just in case.
  5. Perfect the art of having one tear slowly drip down your cheek.
  6. Pace and sigh. Over and over again.
  7. If the person’s standing up, say: “You’re going to want to sit down for this.”
  8. If the person is sitting down, say: “You’re going to fall out of your chair when you hear this.”
  9. If the person is laying on the ground, having recently fallen out of their chair, say: “You’re going to want to pre-emptively curl up into fetal position when you hear this.”
  10. Text your colleague “I don’t know how we’ll recover from this” and press send. Then, start typing a response so the person knows more context is coming. But this time—and stay with me here—do not press send. Ever.
  11. Go back to 1996 and buy a boom box. Walk around the office playing “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” When people ask what’s up, refer to #5.
  12. Send an email with the subject line: We Need to Talk. Leave the body empty.
  13. Set your hair on fire.
  14. Go in circles. Both physically and word-i-ly. Make it clear the situation’s not good, but talk around it for as long as possible. Bonus points if you both leave with your stomach in knots, but the other person can’t quite put their finger on why.
  15. Kick off the conversation with, “Have you ever felt like you’re Jack in Titanic and Rose just won’t make room for you on that board? Anyways, up to anything exciting this weekend?”

Finished getting through all of this? Pat yourself on the back for reading the 15 worst ideas on the internet today. OK, that’s probably not true because I’ve seen the internet—but they’re pretty horrible suggestions.

The truth is that you’re going to have to be the bearer of bad news at work sometimes. And while it’ll never be fun for you to do it (at least I hope not), you can do it in a way that doesn’t stress people out.

For example, if you need to tell your boss something, take this advice. Or, if you need to give honest feedback to someone, from your direct report to your co-workers, try this. Or, maybe you need a deadline extension. If so, take these tips. Oh, and if you need to apologize, which can definitely be the case, use one of these templates.

No matter which route you take, remember that things go wrong at every job, in every industry. And even if it’s a result of a mistake you’ve made, you’re going to be OK and the people involved are going to be OK. The real trick is handling the situation quickly, professionally, and ideally in a way that doesn’t involved spreading fear.

You’ve got this! (And you’ve also got my Twitter if you want to add anything to this list.)

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