Delivering Bad News

What is ‘bad’ news?

One practical definition of bad news is “any news that adversely and seriously affects an individual’s view of his or her future” – Rob Buckman

Key Messages for managers delivering bad news

  • Prepare, mentally and emotionally – think about yourself, the other person, the news itself, etc.
  • Make sure you have privacy and time. Never give important information in inappropriate places such as busy workplaces, open plan offices, corridors etc.
  • Give yourself enough time to break the news to the person.
  • Always deliver bad news with a second person present—it is better for you and for the recipient if there is more than the two of you present.
  • If you may need an interpreter, have contact details readily available as part of your bereavement resources.
  • Deal with the person’s concerns before you deal with questions of detail.
  • Give the news in bite-sized chunks and make periodic checks for understanding.
  • Make sure you are supported too— delivering bad news is stressful.

“Receiving bad news can be traumatic. The way that you prepare can make a big difference”

This leaflet helps managers to give bad news to a person in the workplace. It may be about the death of someone close to the person or news about incidents where the full outcomes are unknown, for example accidents, suicide attempts or unexpected rapid deterioration of an existing illness.

1. Prepare yourself

  • If you believe you are unable to give the news yourself ask another manager to join you but if possible be present to give support to the person receiving the news.
  • Find a quiet private room where you can avoid interruptions (from people as well as from phones).
  • Know all the facts and make sure you are talking to the right person.
  • If the police, a relative or friend arrives at the workplace to break the bad news, ask if they want you to stay once the person is present. When they have left make sure the person who received the news is not left alone unless they ask to be for a short period and then return.
  • If you have to break the bad news make sure you have sufficient time. Have tissues handy(but discreetly) and it is important to stay with the person and give them time to take in what you are telling them.
  • Arrange for transport and/or a friend or relative to come and collect the person.
  • If an interpreter is required try to have a list of contacts available in advance and avoid delegating interpretation to a relative, friend or another colleague unless requested by the person.

2. Prepare the person receiving the bad news

  • Start by inviting the person to sit down and introduce your colleague(s) if unknown
  • Before launching into the news, find out what the person knows—if anything—about the information you are about to give them e.g. “Joe—do you know why I have asked to meet with you this afternoon?”

3. Delivering the news

  • Give a ‘warning shot’ and pause. For example, “Joe—I have just had a call from a relative/ the police” or “I wish I had better news to give you today”. Remember to pause—let the person take this in before moving on.
  • Break the news gently, slowly and clearly, using chunks and check understanding of each part as it may take the person a while before they fully grasp what is being said. Don’t overload the person with information, think of delivering bad news as a process and not a single event. Avoid euphemisms and jargon – use simple language.
  • Do not give false reassurances if the news is ambiguous e.g. if there has been an accident and the full facts are not known about the condition of the person(s) involved
  • Track (keep an eye on) the person’s reactions and acknowledge their emotional reactions, for example “I can see this is a shock for you/very upsetting”.
  • Before closing, ask the person to tell you what they have understood about what you are saying – you can correct any misunderstanding. If necessary repeat the question.

4. Support the person receiving bad news

  • Deal with concerns before details – facts may not be remembered but the way they were communicated will be. Allow for silence and tears.
  • The person may not be able to take everything in – be prepared to repeat as necessary.

5. Plan and follow up

  • Leave the person with some sense of what can be done to help them deal with whatever they have to deal with by giving them a clear plan as to what will happen next.
  • Have options prepared to discuss with the person as appropriate and based on the person’s response to the news e.g. if you are giving news that a relative has died—insist that you will organise transport for the person to wherever they need to go. Do not allow them to drive themselves—offer to have someone accompany them.
  • Offer to call relatives and/or a friend/colleague with whom the person is friendly. Seek the person’s permission before giving information to others.
  • Provide a contact name and number to the person for when they have further questions or require support.
  • Check back with the person when they have had a chance to process the news.

6. Delivering Bad News over the Phone

Face to face communication is always better but sometimes calling someone cannot be avoided. Depending on the circumstances you may also have to break bad news to a person’s family for example if there is an accident at work.

  • Find a quiet room and mentally prepare before you start dialling and if possible have a trusted colleague with you.
  • Confirm the person’s identity. Tell them who you are and what your role is.
  • Suggest that the person sits down.
  • Give a warning shot and pause before delivering the news gently, using simple language. Sample phrase: “I’m afraid I am calling with bad news”.
  • If there is someone with them, offer to speak to this other person too and/or offer to telephone another family member or friend. Repeat exactly what you said to the first person to confirm the message.
  • Stay on the phone until the person indicates that they are ready to end the conversation.
  • Ensure the person has a contact name and direct line number for you or for one of your colleagues.
  • Ensure a member of staff is nominated to liaise with the person and that the person has his/her contact number.
  • Document and liaise with others as appropriate in the organisation.

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