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?"
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.