Negative News Via E-mail: The Best Response Strategies

As e-mail has taken up more and more of the work of business communication, it’s also becoming a way of receiving bad news from your supervisor or your company. Given that, it’s a good idea to learn the best business strategies to deal with getting negative news and responding to it via e-mail.

E-mail is increasingly used to bear bad news in business.

When Using E-mail Impedes Communication

First, let’s talk a bit more about the ways e-mail can be used negatively. A recent Harvard Business Review calls it “dialogue disruption,” because the uses can undermine mutual purpose and mutual respect.

How do they do this? Well, sometimes e-mail is used to deliver news that likely won’t be good from the recipient’s perspective. You could be told, for example, that you won’t receive a promotion, won’t be presenting at a meeting (or that someone else will be), or that a division will be phased out.

Now, that’s not to say that this form of communication is ideal. It isn’t. But sometimes the lack of face-to-face in e-mail is just too tempting for managers in a bind to resist.

In addition, some may be hoping to deflect discussion and move on.

Some people may also use e-mail to lay out detailed discussions of their perspective on company policies or to attack other people and their perspectives.

How to Respond

So now let’s look at how to respond.

If you receive bad news via e-mail, the first step in your response is not to respond immediately. If you immediately fire back a reply, you run the risk of showing your displeasure in an unprofessional way. If it’s bad news that makes you angry, such as suddenly being told that one of your assignments has been reassigned, that’s especially a risk.

Keep in mind that negative e-mail is a dialogue disruptor. You want to re-establish the dialogue in a professional manner, by emphasizing mutual purpose and mutual respect.

The second step is to think through what your response should be. Give yourself time to process the message before responding – wait until the steam has blown away. Think things through. What response would get you the result you desire?

If you didn’t get a promotion, you’re quite justified in asking for a face-to-face meeting to discuss next steps. You need to know how you were reviewed and what the moves toward future promotions might be.

If you’re not presenting at a meeting, or getting other assignments you were originally told you were getting, send a professional response asking for a meeting. Something like “I’d like to discuss this further. Is tomorrow at 2 p.m. a good time?” will work. Be prepared to discuss the issue calmly.

In responding to all types of negative e-mail, it’s important to focus on facts and ask for a mutual solution. Don’t complain about the lack of promotion or reassignment, for example. Reiterate that you think you have skills and qualifications that could benefit the company. Focus on how they can be used going forward.

If you received news of a division closing or other macro business move that affects you, there is likely no need to respond directly to the e-mail unless you are a division manager. Unfortunately, some companies relegate employment and lay-off news via e-mail. But you can focus on facts and solutions. Ask your supervisor for news on timing or benefits, such as unemployment insurance, for example.

Don’t engage with pontificating or flame e-mails unless you are directly targeted — and be very neutral and disengaged in your responses.

It’s becoming increasingly common to receive negative business news via e-mail. Don’t over-react to such emails. Respond by carefully thinking through a professional response, and focus on facts and mutually agreeable solutions.