How to Deliver Bad News

How To Deliver Bad NewsColin Powell once said “Bad news is not wine; it doesn’t improve with age.”

And Colin was right. Even though you may dread delivering bad news more than you dread filing your business taxes or trips to your in-laws, it is unfortunately something you have to do. Otherwise people may do crazy things like assume they got jobs and show up for nonexistent work. Or expect products that you just don’t have.

But delivering bad news is an art, and when you deliver bad news correctly it can sometimes leave the reader feeling better than when he started reading. How do you achieve these miracles? It all starts with BRRAG.

What Is BRRAG?

BRRAG is an acronym for how to structure any sort of bad news correspondence. It stands for:





Goodwill Ending

A Buffer is exactly what it sounds like: A piece of writing intended to give some cushion between “Hello” and “You’re not getting what you want.” A buffer can be a lot of things, but a pleasant thank you for their correspondence works (We appreciate your inquiry) a statement of current facts (We are currently in a period of restructuring) or something positive the reader did (your manuscript had excellent punctuation!).

A Reason is essentially why you are refusing the person’s request. IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT YOU PUT THIS BEFORE THE REFUSAL. That’s in all caps for a reason. You may be tempted to put the refusal at the end of your buffer, but in order for the reader to psychologically accept the refusal better, it must be prefaced with facts.

For example: “For this position it is essential that someone speak Spanish, since it is Latin American marketing. Though you have a great many qualifications, Spanish fluency is not one of them.” All facts, and it lets the reader follow your reasoning so he or she may better understand how to apply successfully in the future.

A Refusal is where you give them the bad news. You need to make it succinct, to the point, and leave no room to interpret anything but a flat out rejection. Think of being asked out by someone you are completely uninterested in. You don’t want to give him hope, or he’ll just keep calling back. So saying something like “We’re pursuing another candidate” is like saying “I’m waiting for Chase Manning to invite me to prom.” The reader feels like “Hey, if that other option doesn’t work out I’ve still got a chance.”

The best strategy is to say in one line something to the effect of “Because of this, we are not going to offer you this position.” Sure, it stings. But life is full of rejections.

The Alternative is what keeps the reader from feeling like his life is over because of the bad news. It returns to him his psychological freedom, and shows him a way to get what he wants even if he can’t get it from you. Think of it as giving him the number of a friend you have with a “really great personality” so he can still get a date to the prom.

Think of other companies who someone might be a fit for if they’re applying for a job, or other products that might fit their needs if you don’t carry one they want. Or, gasp, send them to a competitor who can fulfill whatever they are requesting. Be sure to include all contact info or ordering details for your alternative, so the reader is more apt to act. No matter how small, the alternative gives the newly-rejected reader a glimmer of hope, and makes you look a lot less like a cold, uncaring company.

Finally, the Goodwill Ending. This needs to be more than “We wish you the best,” because, really, whoever ends a letter by saying “We wish you fall off a bridge and die?” Go a little further and restate something positive about the reader, then refer back to the alternative to remind him that he can still get what he wants. THEN tell him you wish him the best, because, yes, people do like to hear that.

Some Don’ts

First, never fire an employee via an email or letter. Even if the person works remotely, give them a phone call at the very least.

Second, don’t apologize for something that isn’t your fault. Saying “I’m sorry we don’t have a position that fits you” makes you look weak. Think about that person you know who apologizes for everything he does. You don’t want to look like him.

Third, if you do apologize, do it once, explain how you’re fixing it and move on. Dwelling on the negative only reinforces that you messed up.

And finally don’t try and pass the buck. This is also known as “Good Guy Syndrome” and is where you say things like “Well, if it was up to me … ” You’ve just made the reader hate someone else for no reason, and you’re not really in business to make friends.

This is by no means the be-all, end-all of bad news delivery. But if you follow this format when you deliver bad news, at the very least you’ll come off looking credible and maintain a good relationship with whomever you’re refusing. You never know, a few years down the road and the roles may well be completely reversed.

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