How not to give bad news

20 years ago I was working in marketing for a large drinks company.  I worked closely with a marketing agency, and they invited me to an awards dinner in London during which they hoped we would be picking up an award.  It was a black tie affair, and I was looking forward to some intensive celebrations and an overnight stay in London.

Annoyingly, my new boss got his secretary to ring me that day to ask me to meet him for an important announcement.  I assume this would be the results of a restructure he had been planning, and was hopeful that it might lead to a new role and maybe even promotion.  It was annoying because it meant taking a detour to another hotel to meet him, and getting changed into my DJ in the car park.

How wrong I was.  After waiting for 30 minutes in reception and seeing one of my colleagues walk out of the hotel without stopping to chat (and looking somewhat stressed), I went into a windowless room in the basement to meet him.  I was surprised to see a guy from HR there, but thought nothing of it.  Both of their faces dropped when they saw I was in black tie and all excited.

He sat me down with the minimum of pleasantries and proceeded to read me a statement.  Paragraph two had the immortal words which I shall never forget:

“As a result of the recent review of the marketing function, the Board has decided that your services will no longer be required.”

I can’t remember much else because I had stopped listening.  Two important questions had overwhelmed me:

1.  How am I going to tell Charlotte?

2.  What about the kids and the mortgage?

Oh, and question three, what about the awards dinner?

I drove home in a trance, moving through the classic initial change responses of numbness, anger and denial, all within the (probably very risky) 2 hour drive home.  When I got home I was already deeply depressed and ready to fall on my own sword.

2 weeks later of course I was over it and creating a new career in which I finally found a job (the one I do now) which flicked all my switches.  Looking back, thank goodness they pushed me, otherwise I might have wasted yet more years in that comparatively fruitless role (some of which would have involved having HIM as my boss).

All these years later what still gets me is the way it was done.  But how could it have been done better?  I’ve recreated the moment in this video.  Watch it and ask yourself how many crass errors are made within just a couple of minutes.  There can be no easy way to break this sort of news, but it has to be capable of being done so much better, surely?

Let me know what you think.


About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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7 Responses to How not to give bad news

  1. Carolann says:

    I really enjoy your “How Not To” videos. It takes much maturity and compassion (maybe not in that order) to deliver bad news. It is an uncomfortable task, so it is understandable, yet think how much more uncomfortable it is for the recipient! I would imagine this face-to-face (almost) delivery is now being replaced with even less humanity–social media.


  2. Beautifully real Mike and Spence. Bravo.

    Mike, did I ever tell you about the time that my employer delayed the HR Christmas party by 4 months, claiming a lack of budget and then fired the Head of HR on the afternoon of the party when we were all en route to the venue?

    The coup de grace, was that they didn’t tell the deputy head of HR who had to host the black-tie event, without knowing why his boss wasn’t there. He gave us the whole….”been through loads of change in recent years, but we are all in it for the long haul now “…..”I know that xxxx really wants to be with us here this evening……..” speech. Priceless in hindsight.

    Meeting the new Head of HR on Monday morning…who had been Headhunted from a competitor in the USA was the most embarrassing employee meeting of my (and the 150 HR colleagues I worked with’s) career.


    • Wow, Charlie, that is priceless. Amazing the depths we humans will descend to at times, isn’t it? Not telling the deputy head of HR is unforgivable, unless it was so that he could never be accused of being an accomplice?


  3. Michael, loved the video. One can say, this never happens, and then again, one would be wrong over and over and over again. This happens all the time…


  4. Hi Michael, if it wasn’t so sad and true, it would be hilarious, well done! It’s incredible how companies deal with these situations sometimes… It’s quite hard to see you acting as such an insensitive bastard who reads (!!!) this devastating message to his co-worker… so: well done, it’s about time someone showed these malpractices! And hopefully, people learn…


    • Hi Nicoline, thanks for the words of encouragement! Yes, I do find it hard to play the insensitive bastard, not sure I do it that convincingly either. Spencer’s much better at it than me 😉

      But it makes a serious point, and I hope people can learn from it.


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