How to answer: Tell me about a time you had to deliver bad news

By Robert Half on 25 July 2022
Estimated Read Time: 3 minutes

During a job interview, a tricky question that may arise is: "Tell me about a time when you had to deliver disappointing news."

You need trust and transparency for any relationship to work well, and your existing or prospective employment relationship is no different.

All too often however, this trust and transparency is compromised by the many employees and job candidates who don’t know how to deliver bad news at work.

Choosing to stay quiet when you have something to share that isn’t in line with what others want to hear is rarely a smart move – even if it does feel like the easiest or safest option at the time.

Not communicating your true intentions, needs, opinions or issues can have a negative impact on your career progression or reputation with your boss or colleagues.

The importance of learning how to deliver bad news at work, or in the lead up to accepting a job, can be better understood by familiarising yourself with the most common scenarios where it can be challenging to bring up “bad news”, and the consequences of not doing so.

5 ways to deliver bad news at work

1. Take responsibility

If you have something to say that you don’t think others will want to hear, confidence, clarity and conviction will be key to delivering your news in a dignified and meaningful way.

Otherwise, you risk not being taken seriously or achieving the positive outcome you desire.

For this reason, avoid delivering “bad news” via passive communication methods such as chat tools or email, and instead, opt to speak to the relevant party directly, either by phone or in-person.

2. Be upfront and transparent

Telling someone something they’d rather not hear is only going to be made more awkward or stressful if they suspect they’re only hearing half-truths or cryptic messages.

At all times, be direct and honest about the news you are sharing and avoid telling white lies in an attempt to ‘soften the blow’.

3. Focus on the positive and be polite

The task of sharing difficult news will be made more uncomfortable if you show your frustrations or disappointments and simply walk away after delivery.

But the chances are, the other party will be much more responsive to your approach if you can offer a more optimistic outlook.

For example, it could be by explaining how you think things can be changed for the better at work, or in the case of recruitment, why you might consider working with the company in future, even if now isn’t the right time.

4. Prepare for the next steps

Hearing bad news in a work context can often be burdensome on the recipient, so demonstrate how you can ‘do your bit’ to remedy the situation with a proactive plan.

For example, if you’ve made a mistake, explain how you might correct it, or if you are experiencing tech issues or a relationship breakdown with other colleagues, explain how you’re preparing to address the situation by speaking directly to the relevant staff or IT department.

5. Be open to offering help

Try to work with the recipient of the news to offer help in any way you can. In the case of pulling out of a new job offer, you could offer to leave a positive review online about the company or recruitment process to help them attract other quality candidates.

Or, in a work environment, you might offer to work more flexible hours to meet deadlines where unforeseen circumstances have arisen.

When deciding between job offers

Difficult conversations often need to be had when searching for a new job. In some cases, the desire to secure the best opportunity might lead to committing to a new job while continuing to interview with other companies.

But you’ll eventually have to find a way to deliver the “bad news” if you decide to back out from a contract you’ve already signed.

The way in which you go about telling the recruiter could determine whether you’re perceived positively or negatively, which could affect your reputation for future roles.

Adjusting to a new role during the onboarding phase can also be challenging. Despite your desire to impress, it’s essential to raise any issues with your new employer straight away if you feel your expectations about the role are not being met.

Having these conversations early gives you and your employer the opportunity to resolve issues before they begin to affect your career or the wider team you’re part of.

In the workplace

At work, there are many situations which might require you to communicate undesirable news to others, but in every case, staying silent on the matter – just because it’s easier – is likely to cause you more stress or negative impacts over time.

For example, if you’re unhappy with your specific role requirements or feel you need a change, telling your boss might give them a short-term problem to solve, but in the longer-term, it could result in some adjustments to your role that leave you feeling more engaged and productive.

Similarly, if you’ve been applying for other jobs because you’re dissatisfied with your remuneration or career progression, you should discuss these issues with your boss first to see if any changes can be made.

Being open about your issues, even if it seems a difficult conversation to initiate, could save you time looking for new opportunities and adapting to a new workplace unnecessarily. At the same time, it gives your employer a welcome opportunity to improve retention.

Aside from your remuneration, benefits and role requirements, there are many other issues that can be difficult to address at work.

For example, if you’re unhappy with the behaviour or conduct of colleagues, raising these issues with the party in question could help improve workplace culture.

And then there’s always the question of what to do when you make a mistake.

While owning up to mistakes can cement your reputation as an honest and authentic employee or colleague, attempting to conceal errors is likely to diminish your credibility and trustworthiness.

Delivering bad news to people at work is never easy but knowing how to do it right is key to keeping your reputation intact and minimising the impacts.

By following these simple guiding principles moving forward, you can avoid staying silent on those difficult conversations that could impact your career if left unsaid.

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