How to Deliver Bad News, Refusals, or Apologies in Written Form

It’s a task that fills anyone with dread.

But, someday, you’re probably going to have to give someone else a “negative message” or “bad news.”

No question about it, giving bad news is difficult. The old phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” comes to mind.  Often, even if you deliver the message verbally, you will find that written negative messages also require a written follow up, particularly in a work scenario where a paper trail may be legally necessary.

cc36Some examples of negative messages can include:

  •   apologies
  •  refusals
  •  rejections
  •  performance appraisals or reviews (which of course can be positive too)
  •  disciplinary write-ups
  •  layoffs and firings
  •  quitting a job or otherwise terminating a business relationship


No one likes to give negative messages like these, because they usually result in the receiver becoming angry, upset, and frustrated. In fact, you really don’t know what to expect, do you?

In order to help decrease the level of anger, disappointment, or negative view of the company or you personally, there are ways to write negative messages that will:

1. Get the message across

2. Help the reader/receiver to understand what is being said, but also keep the company’s (or writer’s) good will with the receiver.


A typical outline of a negative letter (electronic or otherwise):





 Goodwill ending


1. Put each aspect of the negative item in its own small paragraph.


2. Start with the Buffer, which can consist of:

  • A neutral statement that delays the bad news
  • A thanks for something they did or said
  • Any positive statement related to the person or situation
  • Stated facts or history of the even (reiterating, briefly, what happened starting with a statement like, “I understand that…”)
  • Try to somehow identify with the recipient

3. Reasons:

  • Prepare the reader for why you will be rejecting their want, or otherwise saying no when they don’t want to hear that
  • Help them accept this by your tone, choice of words, and helpful attitude
  • Do not hide behind company policy and only mention it if it will somehow help explain the situation or if the policy might benefit them in some way in the future

4. Refusal:

  • Imply the refusal if you can manage to
  • Make sure the refusal is clear, however
  • State your refusal only once

5. Alternatives:

  • Show the person you care about his or her needs
  • Offer some ways the person might be able to get what they want
  • Offer something the company might be able to do for them instead of what they are asking for
  • Explain how the alternative is beneficial

6. Goodwill Ending:

  • Avoid an insincere ending like, “If you ever need anything else, please contact me…” or “If there is anything more I can do for you…”
  • Refer to a good alternative
  • Close with a friendly statement and tone

When you write your negative message, whether it is a note telling your boss that you have decided to accept a different position, letting someone know that their insurance claim is being denied, or even if you are handling a situation with a friend that you are unable to voice,  these general guidelines will you write a message that is firm, but soft.

As a final note, if you’re writing on behalf of a business, be sure that your message follows correct letter formatting.

Also, remember that your letter may serve as a legal document to prove proper termination or otherwise, so be sure to keep your message honest and within legal boundaries.


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