Lay-Offs? Stock Dropped? How to Deliver Bad News: 10 Tips

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 06, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A sad reality, in-house counsel often must deliver bad news. Sometimes you are a jack of all trades, judge, jury and executioner when it comes to legal policy and the actions that follow.

To put it even more bluntly: you're often getting paid to be the buzz-kill. You have to tell your boss when they're flying too high and taking too many risks. This happens a lot at start ups. Founders can be bent on taking one path and the last thing they want to hear is "no." So your voice won't always be appreciated.

Here are ten tips on how to deliver bad news:

  1. Mentally prepare. Practice what you're going to say. If it's a time-sensitive matter, give yourself a minute to gather your thoughts and mentally prepare to deal with unpleasant reactions. That being said, rote memorization isn't great because you need to be flexible in case the conversation takes a turn in a different direction than anticipated.
  2. Be prompt. That last thing you need is for someone to get the news through the gossip-mongering grapevine. Make sure you're the first to deliver the unfortunate news. The best way to do this is by delivering the news as soon as you know about it.
  3. Let them down gently. You don't have to be abrasive to be the bearer of bad news. Strike a tone of being understanding and empathetic -- even when their reaction might lead to some hostility towards you. (N.B No. 8) That being said...
  4. Be honest and direct. There's a difference between being "understanding" and "sugar-coating." The latter is a bad tactic. Emphasizing the silver lining to the point where you fully recognize the cloud can be misleading and cause confusion. Don't beat around the bush. It won't help anyone.
  5. Communicate by phone or in-person. As a general rule of thumb, the more serious and worse the news is, the more important it is to deliver it via phone or in-person. But if you're dealing with a time-sensitive matter or you really need to leave a paper trail, send an email, but include a line welcoming a phone call to discuss the matter further.
  6. Justify the news. Both bosses and subordinates often expect and demand to know why the bad news is being delivered, whether it be legal issues related to a negative performance review, a budget cutback, or job layoffs. Justification should include specific and concrete reasons for the bad news, reports Forbes.
  7. Focus on the future. Harping on the past will drag everyone down. Focusing on potential solutions and looking toward the future creates a sense of confidence and trust. Still, make sure to tie up any loose ends before launching into the next chapter.
  8. Acknowledge the impact on the company. It's always helpful to put yourself in the other person's shoes. It resonates with people because that registers as a strong sign of empathy. Frame the conversation around meeting their goals and needs.
  9. Treat everyone with respect. It's easy to get burned out from delivering bad news as an in-house counsel. But remember, you're not just communicating bad news; you're communicating it to human beings.
  10. Give yourself a moment. Since you're a human being, too: Give yourself a moment to decompress after a particularly bad news bear session.

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