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How to write a ‘bad news’ email: your step-by-step guide

Rejecting an award applicant. Reporting a job loss. Communicating that you can’t give a customer what they want.

Informing people of bad news is a reality of business and life. And although it’s commonplace, so many people get it… so wrong.

That’s because they cloud the truth with jargon, make the message too harsh or offer no real take away.

When it comes to delivering bad news, tact is critical. Even though it can’t erase what’s happened, it will retain your credibility and relationships.

So here’s your step-by-step guide to breaking bad news – the good way.

1. Open with a positive

How you contextualise the bad news is crucial. It can settle your reader’s temper… or fuel it. So start with something positive, such as:

  • Describing what went well
  • Explaining something positive about the future
  • Presenting an optimistic, long-term view

By beginning your writing on a positive note – often referred to as a ‘buffer sentence’ – you can keep your reader onside.

Example buffer sentences include:

1. Thank you for your well-written application.

2. As you all know, Ruth has been a member of our print team for the past 15 years.

3. Thank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our products.

Important: Although your buffer must be positive, it should never be so positive that it implies you are about to say ‘yes’. Also, don’t go on and on. Include 1-2 short buffer sentences at most.

2. Explain what – and why

Next, explain what has happened and why. This will help your audience understand and sympathise with your position.

Here are some examples:

1. Each year, we only accept three finalists from across Australia.

2. However, with the industry going through a challenging time, we’ve had to make some changes.

3. On the day you placed your order, we had over 7,000 requests for this product.

What makes these explanations great? They’re direct, clear and sincere.

They also avoid vague jargon like this:

  • As our business evolves, we’ve had to undergo a restructure.
  • Our current plan isn’t moving the needle at the pace we had anticipated.
  • The September processes are no longer best practice.

3. Keep the bad news clear, concise – and truthful

When writing the negative news, your aim is to leave no room for confusion. If your reader has to work hard to untangle what you mean, you will only frustrate them further.

Take these clear examples:

1. We regret to inform you that your application has been unsuccessful.

2. Sadly, Ruth’s position no longer exists, therefore we’ve had to make her redundant.

3. This unusually high demand means your product is temporarily out of stock.

These sentences are straightforward. But they also show empathy, tact and honesty.

4. Finish with a solution, lesson or plan

Bad things happen all the time. Your reader gets this. What they care about then, is how you respond to the situation.

Tell your reader what these events have taught you. Or if possible, offer a solution.

You can also share how you’ll prevent similar incidents from occurring again. Just make sure your response is credible and practical.

Check out these examples:

1. However, we encourage you to apply again next year.

2. We know how much Ruth means to you all and how upsetting this may feel. So please come talk to me any time you need to.

3. The good news is that your product will ship next Monday. In the meantime, please enjoy a 20% discount off your next purchase by using the code: SPECIAL.