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Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Bad-News Letter (isn't so bad after all).

It has a bad reputation--the bad-news letter, but that's only because the word bad is in it.

Actually, the bad-news letter has some important jobs to accomplish:  written clearly, the bad-news letter alerts the reader that there is a problem, suggests ways to correct the problem, asks for action in a way that tact and subtlety usually have failed to do (or you wouldn't be writing it) and creates a record of the problem and the point of view of management in case someone asks later, still blinded to his/her own shortcomings:   "What do you mean?"

That happens.

It happens because communication is hard in the workplace.  People are busy, self-centered, self-deceived and sometimes outright lazy.  A bad-news letter attempts to amelieorate the tensions that being human causes, and the good news is--it does.

Unlike other letters that contain bad news, the official bad news letter of a reprimand, for instance, is not usually a dead end letter.

It is used like a bell that serves as a wake up call.

Unlike a "Dear John" (or a "Dear Jane") letter that can break a reader's heart long distance, a bad-news letter has redeeming qualities. Its immediate goal is usually not to reject you; it's meant to cultivate you, improve your performance, get your attention.  

Its most significant redeeming quality is that the bad-news letter tells the reader the truth.

But even ordinarily perceptive people who are obtuse about their own shortcomings can still misread or misunderstand a bad-news letter.  That is why you need to keep some steps in mind if it is your job to write one:

1.  Begin in a non-threatening way
2.  Explain the problem
3.  Suggest ways to solve the problem you are writing about.
4. Ask for action to correct the problem.
5. Lay out a time frame for action and the promise to revisit the situation later after enough time has passed for the reader's action to have achieved results.
6. Close the letter in a friendly way, but don't make any promises you aren't prepared to keep.

Remember, the job of a bad-news letter is to ultimately help the reader.

Writing one doesn't make you a bad guy. It just means you're the boss.

23 comments:

  1. Ms. Simpkins:

    Too often, words in an email or letter come off more harsh than they are meant to be. Since you are not face to face, body language and facial expressions are missing. Do you have any advice on adding more personality to what you write?

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  2. Hi! Thanks for writing a question here. I just posted two responses above that address this tension in workplace writing. Please read them and let me know if either or both of them help you. If not, please write again, and I will try again!

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  3. i have never received a a letter telling bad news, but i believe that it being on paper extracts the emotions tied to the problem or the suggestions that are given.

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  4. A bad new letter can definitely be a way to professionally show a need for improvement without being demeaning to someone.

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  5. I have never had to write a bad news letter before, but I can only imagine it being hard to do. You have to carefully construct your words. I must keep in mind to make my letter sound constructive rather than de-constructive.

    - Jessica Manasco

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  6. A bad news letter seems to be the extra push to make an employee understand they need to do something differently, without being rude about it.

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  7. If advice is given on how to correct the "bad news" then sometimes the bad news is not always so bad.

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  8. I think this is a good way to address an existing problem in a non-aggressive way. It also helps the employee to know they need to kick it in gear. WI8 Kendra Moore

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  9. Most often a bad news letter means that something of importance requires immediate attention. As you stated in your article, “you are the boss!” “Explain the problem, ask for action, and set a time-line for action and follow up results.” We should always be aware of professional etiquette when writing in the workplace.

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  10. Miss Simpkins,

    I appreciate the point you made about bad news letters not usually meant to reject you; but to cultivate you, improve your performance, or get your attention. From prior experience, I know that there is nothing worse than receiving a bad news letter that feels like total rejection. It wrecks your self esteem. In a past position, I often wrote bad news letters/e-mails to job applicants who weren't chosen to move forward in the interview process. Although the letters didn't contain the news they wanted, I always tried to mention something positive about their work experience or provide suggestions for improvement. I hope that this softened the blow of not getting the job and that the applicants were able to learn something from the suggestions I gave them.

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  11. Miss Simpkins,
    I made the comment just the other day that the B I received in your class was the nicest one ever received. I think you wrote me a bad news letter and I appreciate it. Just like the article said, it made me want to do better and to prove to you that I am capable of an A. Thanks.

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  12. The bad news letter is always thought of as a letter that no one wants to receive. However, with the above topics in the blog I believe that it does not have to be this way. A bad news letter can still be encouraging while giving the message the reader needs to hear.

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  13. Writing a bad-news letter seems to be a real problem for some of the supervisors I have known. The letter almost always ends in multiple What do you mean?" inquiries.

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  14. Erik H. - ENGL 3060: WI Business Pro Writing WI7February 23, 2014 at 7:03 PM

    Very helpful.

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  15. Bad news letters do not always have to be a bad thing. Sometimes they are just used to warn someone of something they need to change.

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  16. I hope I never have to write one of these bad news letters, but this sure is helpful in case I ever do!

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  17. I like this article because it changed my perception on bad news letters. If we look past the idea of these letters putting us, we begin to realize that they are written to help. If we didn't have them, we would be oblivious to our mistakes and faults.

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  18. Really helpful tips on softening the tone and occasional harshness of bad news letters.

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  19. I found this article to be very interesting. It has helped me to better understand the purpose of what a bad news letter can do. It can actually be a very useful tool.

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  20. I believe that bad news letters really holds the person accountable for the problem addressed in the letter because it calls for a response, which is the person's plan on fixing the problem.

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  21. Miss Simpkins,
    I feel as if the bad news letter begins bad, but it is up to the person reading to make the decision on whether the information given to them is bad or not.

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  22. Ms. Simpkins,
    Anytime I see a "Bad News letter" I feel as if I am being scolded or spoken down to, but I constantly remind myself that it isn't what I think. We all jump to conclusions when reading a text, simply because of a lack of emphasis on particular words, so we have to reread it to take the whole meaning into perspective. Just to see the whole letter as simple advice, and not a chastisement.
    Sincerely
    J. Hyder

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  23. Very helpful!

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