How to Deliver Unpleasant News

No one wants to receive bad news at work, but delivering it is often worse. After all, who wants to announce to management that a project deadline will be missed—again! In situations like this, the answer to your manager’s question about the project’s status might be something vague like, "It’s coming along."

While it’s tempting to use evasive tactics when delivering bad news, there are a number of downsides to only presenting the upside. These include potentially harming your professional reputation, losing your manager’s trust or missing out on support that might have helped you resolve the situation, to name a few. It goes without saying that honesty is always the best policy. Following are suggestions on when and how to deliver unsavory news to your boss.

Do it early. Receiving bad news is, well, bad enough for a manger. But learning that your staff member has known about a problem and not told you about it for weeks can be infuriating. So don’t, for instance, postpone telling your manager that there was a major typo in a client’s print ad. It’s best to rip off the Band-Aid and let him or her know as soon as possible—postponing the discussion is likely to make things worse, not better.

Make sure the bad news comes from you. If you don’t immediately deliver the unpleasant news to your manager, you can trust that someone else will. If the bearer of bad news, for example, is the client who was less than pleased with his advertising, your boss will be extremely unhappy about being surprised and unprepared for the client’s call. In addition, your manager is much less likely to be sympathetic to your explanation if he or she had to hear the news from a third party. As soon as you know about a major problem, so should your supervisor.

Deliver the news in person, if possible. Don’t send your manager an e-mail telling him or her that you had an argument with the creative director over the cover of the annual report, stalling the project’s progress. E-mail doesn’t allow your boss to ask questions or allow you to fully explain how and why the incident occurred. It’s much better to ask for an in-person meeting and stress that you need to speak to him or her right away.

Get to the point (and avoid complaining). Once you’re in your manager’s office, avoid over-dramatizing the event; your manager doesn’t want a list of reasons why you believe the creative director to be an evil overlord of the department. Likewise, don’t downplay a big mistake—like the wrong file going to the printer. Acknowledge the problem, apologize to the affected parties and work with your manager on not only a solution, but also a strategy for ensuring a similar mistake doesn’t occur again.

While all of these tactics are useful if you have bad news to deliver, it’s obviously best to avoid the need for this type of conversation in the first place. One way to do so is to ask questions—of your manager, co-workers and clients—from the beginning of a project. When you need clarity on the direction, ask. Basically, when in doubt, it’s better to pose a question than to have to come to your manager later about a problem.

Obviously, you cannot avoid all mistakes or mishaps at work. However, by delivering unpleasant news quickly and in person, you’ll spend less time on the firing line and more on the production line.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.