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How to Deliver Bad News in Business Writing

Inevitably, we all have to deliver bad news in business writing. A large global heathcare how to deliver bad news in business writing resized 600company CEO sent a memo to his U.S. employees, announcing an imminent layoff. However, instead of being truthful, he dodged the issue by using at least 12 different euphemisms for the company's recent planned job cuts and layoffs. He never actually used the words "jobs" or "layoffs."

This was a mistake. When delivering bad news, there are a number of techniques one can use, but they all contain two key elements to succeed: truth and sincerity.

  • When we dodge the truth, and obfuscate meaning, our readers become more alienated and angry. They feel dismissed, unheard, unvalued. 
  • They will mistrust the entire message, and the writer.

The CEO should not be apologetic for reducing the workforce. We should never apologize for a good business decision. However, he hid behind jargon cliches instead of buffering appropriately, engaging his audience, and providing complete content. At one point he describes layoffs as an "opportunity":

    "... the opportunity for employees in the aforementioned select areas to proactively "hand raise" and be considered for separation."

Other poorly dodged phrases included:

  • "reducing our expense base"
  • "manage our expense base"
  • "vacancy management"
  • "restructure"
  • "removing more open positions"
  • "necessary actions"
  • "we cannot promise the avoidance of such activities"
  • "restructuring exercise"
  • "affected employees"
  • "the people who are directly affected"
  • "the need for us to change our underlying operations"
(You can read the full memo here.)

How to Deliver Bad News in Business Writing

If your news will cause your reader to emotionally disconnect from your message, before he or she reads fully, you should buffer your message.

If the news is not significant, you can use a direct approach:

To help readers accept your decision when using the direct plan, present a brief rationale along with the bad news in the first paragraph:
The annual company Holiday Party originally scheduled for December 20 at the Boston Aquarium has been canceled.
Because the current renovations at the Boston Aquarium may present safety hazards to our employees and their families, the Holiday Party scheduled for December 20 has been canceled.

If leading with the negative news might be too harsh and emphatic, and your decision might sound unreasonable until the reader has heard the rationale, buffer the bad news indirectly by beginning with a neutral and relevant statement.

Scenario: an important customer has asked your company to provide an in-house demonstration of your product, but this is against your policy.


  • We both recognize the promotional possibilities that often accompany a big anniversary sale such as yours.


  • Thanks for letting us know of your success in selling ABC appliances. (Stop here - don't thank them for asking you to do something you're going to refuse or you'll sound insincere)


  • Congratulations on the growth of your stores and for your leadership in the Boston market for ten years.

When you need to deliver bad news in business writing, use statements that are truthful and sincere.



About the Author: Mary Cullen

A business writing expert, Mary helps professionals write documents that clearly convey complex information to colleagues and customers.


I refer to your current "Catch the Mistake". I am not sure I agree with you Mary. I do not see why "e.g." was incorrect. The statement mentions "quality issues". If it had read "issue", then yes, "i.e." would have been correct. However, given the plural "issues" the example given was just one of many. 
We eliminated the Alexa shoe from our upcoming catalog after customer complaints alerted us of quality issues (e.g., the red ink was not colorfast). When you meet with department store managers, I recommend substituting the similar Daniella shoe.
Posted @ Wednesday, November 16, 2011 1:41 AM by William Whitney
Thanks for your comment, Bill. Yes, I see that the plural form does open the possibility for e.g. I modeled this on two examples - one from Gregg and the other from AP Style and both those guides do recommend i.e even when only one option is listed in a plural example.  
My trick for these sort of hair-splitting grammar situations? Sidestep it! Instead, just write that is or for example, as appropriate.
Posted @ Thursday, November 17, 2011 5:36 PM by Mary Cullen
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