Giving bad news is part and parcel of many people’s working life. You may have to

  • tell a long-standing client you’ll no longer be supplying the service they rely on,
  • let  an employee know their request for extra staff has been rejected, or
  • inform a partner in a project that you won’t be able to meet a deadline.

It’s often perfectly acceptable to do this by email. The important thing is to do it clearly, empathetically and respectfully. This article looks at a step-by-step structure and suitable language for writing emails which get the message across without losing trust and jeopardizing the relationship.

Don’t put it off!
Telling someone something you know they won’t want to hear isn’t an easy or pleasant task. Of course, it can be tempting to put it off. Don’t. It will harm both your credibility and the relationship if it becomes clear that you’ve known the news for a while and didn’t pass it on.

Start with something positive – if you can

This isn’t hypocritical or misleading. It shows that you respect and appreciate the recipient’s effort or situation.  But it’s important to keep it short – just one or two sentences – so that you don’t cloud the actual message.

You can refer to positive past experiences:
I’ve been providing you with website support for 5 years now and I’ve really enjoyed working with you.

Or say thank you:
Thank you for all your hard work. I appreciate that the last few months have been extremely busy for your department.

If starting with something positive isn’t an option you can offer some context:
As you know, supply chains have been subject to major disruptions recently.


Give the bad news

When it comes to delivering the bad news, it’s important to show tact, empathy and respect, but at the same time make absolutely sure that your message is clear, to the point and truthful. There shouldn’t be any room for confusion. Sugar-coating the message – e.g. by using vague phrases or raising false hopes – doesn’t do the recipient any favours.

Start with a phrase that shows you’re sorry to disappoint the reader: I’m afraid …; I’m sorry, but …; Sadly, …; Unfortunately …; We regret to inform you that … (this one is more formal).

I’m afraid I’ll no longer be offering this service in future.

I’m sorry to say that your request for an additional employee has been rejected.

Unfortunately, we won’t be able to meet the deadline.  


Explain the reasons

The recipient doesn’t need a long, rambling account of all the ins and outs, just enough background information to help him or her understand your position or decision. Again, it’s important to use clear, jargon-free language.

If the bad news – e.g. a missed deadline or a broken promise – is the result of your actions, this is the place to admit your mistake. 

Over the last few years, I’ve taken on more and more training projects and I’ve decided this is the direction I want to take my business in.

Due to our current cost-cutting measures, it’s just not feasible.

I have to admit that I completely underestimated the difficulties in obtaining the parts we need. I apologise.


Offer support, a solution or the chance to talk

How you finish your email will depend on the situation, of course. The aim should be to come across as helpful and professional, without detracting from your core message. 

If you’re withdrawing a service, you could suggest a replacement:
I’ve heard very good things about xy, who provides a similar service. 

If you’re turning down a request, perhaps you can offer a more positive perspective in the future – but only if it’s realistic:
I realise that this isn’t the news you were hoping for. I can assure you that as soon as the financial situation improves, I’ll review your request. However, I can’t at this point say when that will be.

If you made a mistake, explain how you’re going to fix it:
We expect to receive the parts at the end of next week. Completing your project by the end of the month will then be our priority and we’ve scheduled employees for this.


Posted on Feb 23, 2023 in improving relationships
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Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more