Breaking Bad News

Career Blog

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. It’s awkward and risky. Just ask the proverbial messenger. But breaking bad news is an essential part of a manager’s role. Do it correctly and you’ll provide a service to both the employee and the organization. 

Performance Issues

When faced with a poor performing employee it’s tempting to sneak up on the conversation. Well meaning, novice managers often endeavor to soften the blow with a long-winded lead up or worse, irrelevant compliments that sandwich the key feedback. These strategies only muddle the message. Instead of wasting time and disrespecting the employee’s intelligence, managers should directly state the issue and cite an objective example of the sub-par behavior. For example:

“Bob, I noticed that you interrupted and talked over your colleagues at our last team meeting. This behavior, conscious or not, causes us to miss out on their input and reduces options for creatively solving problems, decreasing team effectiveness.”

Focusing on the behavior depersonalizes the topic. It makes it clear that the employee isn’t broken. Rather, the “action” needs a course correction. This enables the employee to better digest the feedback and move to resolution.

Once Bob acknowledges the behavior, the manager can focus on devising course corrective action. For example, Bob could commit to listening to other’s first, asking questions about their input, or building on ideas offered.

These solutions, focus on a shift in action. They help Bob become more effective without dwelling on the “wrongness” of the original action. Also, if Bob takes the lead on selecting the remedy, he will be more likely to implement it.


Poor performance reviews aren’t the only times a manager must convey disappointing news. Sometimes even high performers find themselves on the receiving end of unwelcomed communication.

Consider the case of an employee who missed out on a promotion when the manager opted to hire from the outside. In these instances transparency is key. Specifically, the employee wants to know why he or she wasn’t selected. This often comes down to two rationales:

  1. The External Candidate had MORE: Tell the employee what objective factor – be it skills, experience, education, etc. – the external candidate had and why that item was critical for the role. Then help him/her put a plan in place to obtain that missing element so they are better prepared for future opportunities.  
  2. The Internal Candidate has LESS: Sometimes people lose promotions based on lack of soft skills, a career-derailing behavior that he/she can’t see, or professional brand that doesn’t fit with the new role. In these cases, use the performance strategies noted above to honestly illustrate the gap. Then help the employee put a plan in place to remedy the weakness.

Regardless of topic or situation, when faced with dealing difficult news, managers must clarify the message and focus on the behavior. Doing so will help the employee assume accountability for the action and shift focus from problem to solution. With focused effort chances are the next conversation will be a positive one.

Need a career coach? Contact me via

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Share This Article


Leave a Comment


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest