How to Deliver Bad News in an Email: Tips & Examples

Updated

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Most people will have difficult conversations or send difficult messages at various times in their lives. For example, perhaps you’ve needed to have end-of-life conversations with loved ones, or someone has asked you to write an “In loving memory” eulogy.

Jump ahead to these sections:

Sharing bad news via email is another example. For many reasons, from sharing bad news about the company with employees to letting relatives know about a death, you might have to send a bad news email at some point.

That’s not an easy task. However, by reviewing the tips and bad news email examples here, you’ll find it’s a task you can handle.

When Is It Appropriate to Send an Email With Bad News?

What to consider when sending an email with bad news

Determining whether it’s appropriate to send someone an email with bad news can seem challenging for a variety of reasons. However, this task doesn’t need to be as difficult as you may think it will be. 

If you have bad news to share and you’re not sure whether you should do so in the form of an email, making your decision will be easier if you account for these factors below. When in doubt, consider how you’d feel in the recipient’s shoes. A bit of empathy goes a long way.

The nature of the bad news

This is critical. Consider whether the news you’re sharing is the type that’s appropriate for an email. While email is a powerful tool, it’s not always appropriate. 

For example, perhaps you’re letting a relative know that a close family member has passed away. An email might be too impersonal for sharing this type of news if they were very close with that family member. While you may not be able to deliver this news to a relative’s face, you can at least call them on the phone. This gives them the chance to speak with you and process their feelings in what could be a moment of shock.

On the other hand, you could justify sending an email if you’re only sharing what’s essentially “minor” bad news. An example of this would be sending an email to someone who interviewed for a job letting them know you’ve decided to give the position to someone else. You can also send an email to relatives letting them know about a death if you know they didn’t have a very close relationship with the deceased. Exercise your judgment when making these decisions.

Your relationship with the recipient

The fact that you have bad news to share doesn’t mean you need to be the one to share it with every person you know. There may be instances when you’re not the right person to break a piece of bad news to a particular individual.

Consider this example: You’ve learned a former classmate who was a casual friend several years ago has passed away. If you’re still close friends with certain former classmates who also casually knew the deceased, you could probably send them emails sharing the news.

However, you likely shouldn’t share this news with former classmates who were closer to the deceased if you aren’t very close with said classmates now. Allow someone who knows them better to tell them about your classmate’s passing (assuming they haven’t already learned of it).

Your own emotional state

If the bad news you’re sharing has impacted you emotionally, unless there is an urgent need to send an email sharing this news with others, take the time to address your own feelings. You need to be calm to properly decide if sending an email is the ideal option.

If you do feel it is, the remainder of this guide offers tips and examples to ensure your email is respectful.

What You Should and Shouldn’t Do When Delivering Bad News

It’s easy to make mistakes when sharing bad news in any format. Don’t worry if you’re concerned about that when sending an email with bad news. These tips will help you understand what you should and shouldn’t do.

Make sure you’re ready

You need to strike a balance when delivering bad news. Depending on the nature of the situation, waiting too long to contact someone with bad news could result in them learning about it from a different source, which could potentially upset them. However, you also need to make sure you’re prepared.

Be ready to break the news in a respectful and thorough manner, and be ready to manage how the person you’re contacting might respond. Give yourself some time to prepare emotionally before sharing bad news (but only if you believe the people you’re contacting won’t learn about it in a different way before you reach out to them).

Don’t lie or sugarcoat

No one enjoys sharing bad news. Wanting to “sugarcoat” the information you’re sharing by leaving out key details or acting optimistic is understandable. However, the truth will come out eventually. You and those you’re contacting will benefit in the long run if you’re honest from the start.

For example, perhaps you need to let family members know a loved one has received a bad health diagnosis and only has a few months to live. You might feel you should soften the blow by saying they still have a chance of beating the illness. However, you’re not doing anyone (including yourself) any favors if you’re misrepresenting the doctor’s statements.

Be human

This point isn’t as vague as it may sound. Essentially, anyone who needs to share bad news with others is usually someone who also feels the need to be strong. You already know you’re sharing information that will upset those who hear it. You don’t want to upset them further by struggling to manage your own emotions.

That’s a very kind attitude. To some degree, it’s also necessary. Once again, preparing yourself emotionally to share bad news respectfully is important in these situations. Just remember, the people you’re contacting know you’re a human being. They’ll expect you to sound at least somewhat upset when you tell them about what has happened. Give yourself some freedom to address your feelings about the news.

This doesn’t need to be complicated. For example, maybe you’re a manager or supervisor, and you’re sending an email announcement of the death of an employee’s family member. It’s entirely reasonable to include such phrases as “This will likely come as a shock to many of you, because it certainly did to me” if they reflect your true feelings.

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Don’t give advice about how anyone should feel

When sharing bad news with someone, some people believe they can help by encouraging the individual they’re contacting to “look on the bright side” or otherwise feel positive during a difficult time. 

For instance, you might be wondering how to announce the death of a family member to other relatives. Maybe you think you can comfort them by saying something like, “Don’t you dare feel bad about this, because that’s the last thing that Grandpa would have wanted!”

Again, you might have good intentions, but good intentions don’t always lead to a positive result. Everyone has their own response to bad news. You need to let someone respond naturally, instead of dictating how they should feel. After all, they’re going to have a difficult experience coping with the news you’re sharing. Don’t make the experience more difficult by making them feel they need to bury their emotions.

How to Deliver Bad News in an Email

The next section of this blog offers bad news email examples you can refer to. First, let’s review some helpful tips about sending bad news in an email.

Make the subject line noticeable

Most people receive a large number of emails in a given day. It takes a lot of time to sort through your inbox. Many people leave a substantial amount of emails unread. Even if they do get around to reading them eventually, they might not do so the day (or even week) they receive them. They’re simply too busy.

Remember this when sharing bad news in an email. This is a message the person you’re contacting needs to read as soon as possible. Depending on the nature of your relationship with them, you could make sure they do by clearly stating in your subject line that this is an urgent matter.

You might feel comfortable reaching out to loved ones via email and using a subject line that explicitly addresses the nature of the message: “Sad news about Aunt Beth. Please read now.” Or you might only use language to express urgency the recipient read right away. Use your judgment when deciding what types of language and phrases to include.

See it from their side

Just as no one likes to share bad news, no one likes to hear it either. Unfortunately, most people will receive bad news at various times throughout their life. Odds are good you’ve had this experience yourself.

That means you have perspective. Think about the type of information and emotions you’d want to find in a bad news email. For instance, if you received an email about the sudden passing of a relative, you might want to get clear but compassionate details about the circumstances of their death. 

That’s just one example. Putting yourself in the position of those you’re contacting will help you more easily decide what to write in a bad news email.

Example Subject Lines for an Email With Bad News

subject lines for an email with bad news

The subject line for an email with bad news is arguably as important as the content of the email itself. The subject line establishes an expectation without taking the recipient by surprise. It gives them a chance to prepare themselves for bad news but it usually does not reveal any significant details except in very rare circumstances.

The specific qualities of a subject line for an email sharing bad news will also vary depending on such factors as the relationship between the sender and the recipient, the context of the bad news, and more. The subject line of an email letting a relative know someone has passed away will be different from the subject line of an email from a potential employer letting someone know they did not get a job they had interviewed for. One will be personal and gentle, while the other may be more professional and objective.

Additionally, because most people receive large amounts of email every day, you want to be confident your chosen subject line will capture a recipient’s attention, otherwise they might overlook the message at first.

Are you having trouble writing a tactful subject line for an email with bad news? These examples may help:

  • It’s been a long time! I wish I was reaching out to you with happier news to share
  • Please Read: An important update on the status of your application
  • I regret I must share some sad news
  • Please open and read this message thoroughly
  • [Recipient’s name], I’m emailing to share some unhappy news
  • An update on important policy changes
  • [Recipient’s name], do you have a moment to talk?
  • Some unfortunate news to share
  • Please call at your earliest convenience to discuss an issue regarding [client/project name]
  • Thank you for your interest in [insert name of position or company here]

Example Sign-Offs for an Email With Bad News

After someone reads an email with bad news, depending on the specific details of said news, it’s likely they may experience a range of emotions. These can include sadness, anger, fear, and even confusion, among numerous others.

Just as an email’s subject line prepares a reader for the bad news within, an email’s sign off can potentially offer some comfort. At the very least, it may let the recipient know what steps they can take next to address the issue.

For instance, if you’re sending an email letting someone know about a death, your sign off can remind them you’re available to talk on the phone if they need someone to turn to. Or, if you’re a supervisor emailing an employee about bad news regarding a client or project, your sign off may instruct them to meet with you in their office for further discussions.

Examples to consider as you write your own email sign off include:

  • “In case you don’t have it, my number is 555-555-5555. Call me whenever you want to talk.”
  • “Let me know as soon as you can if you’re available for a call or meeting at noon tomorrow.”
  • “If you have questions about our decision regarding this matter, you may contact us at [insert contact information].”
  • “I’m here for you. Sorry again to be the one to break this news.”
  • “Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything.”
  • “We genuinely have appreciated your hard work and will gladly recommend you to future clients or employers.”
  • “I will update you with information about the funeral once we finalize all arrangements.”
  • “If I didn’t explain the situation clearly, feel free to reach out with your questions.”
  • “Unfortunately, those are all the details I have now. I will get in touch right away when I learn more.”
  • “Don’t worry about sharing this news with any other family members yourself. I’m taking care of everything.”

Examples of Delivering Bad News in an Email 

Examples of delivering bad news in an email

The following bad news email examples should help if you ever need to draft this type of message. That said, you should also remember that these are merely general bad news email examples, and you’ll almost definitely need to adjust some of the details for your specific situation:

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When someone is ill

Janice,

I’ll get right to the point. There’s no easy way to tell you this, but Kelly was diagnosed with cancer and it’s not looking good.

Knowing you, I’m sure you want to help any way you can at this time. We appreciate that. But we also know this is difficult news to cope with. We promise to reach out if we need your support.

In the meantime, I’ll do my best to answer any questions, but you probably understand we’ll be very busy the next few months, so I apologize in advance if I don’t respond right away when you get in touch. Please don’t share this information with the in-laws. I’m handling that, and I’ll let you know when everyone else has heard the news.

When someone died

Brian,

I’m deeply sad to let you know Charlie has passed away. I’ll contact you immediately with information about services and next steps as soon as I have it. I’ve already let Meagan and Rose know, so you can discuss it with them, but Anthony and Jeff haven’t gotten back to me yet, so I can’t be sure they’ve heard the sad news.

I’ll let you know when they respond, but for now, please don’t share this news with them or post about it on social media. Just focus on taking care of yourself and your family. I’m happy to answer your questions, but know I may not always be able to do so right away.

Tip: If you're planning a virtual funeral or memorial, some companies like GatheringUs have specialists who can guide and support you through the planning process.

Regarding work or business

Ashley,

I’m sorry to let you know I have some bad news to share. Our business lost a client and we’ve been forced to cut costs, so although you’ve done great work for us, we can no longer assign you additional projects as a contractor for the foreseeable future.

I’d be more than happy to provide a glowing testimonial for your services, and if future opportunities do arise, I’ll think of you. However, I can’t promise that will happen, so I recommend seeking other clients.

To your boss

Tammie,

I appreciate how hard you have worked to help me grow in my role at the company these past two years. You recognized potential I did not immediately see in myself and helped me to realize it. This has been a very rewarding experience.

However, for personal reasons, I believe I need to step away from this position and seek an opportunity that will be better-suited to my lifestyle now that I have a family to care for. I will be sending an official letter of resignation later this week. In the meantime, I wanted to personally thank you for the role you’ve played in my professional development.

To employees or direct reports

[Client name] team members,

First, I want you all to know each and every one of you has worked diligently and admirably on our project for [client]. I speak not only for myself but for the C-suite when I assure you we are all proud of your work.

Unfortunately, I must inform you that the client has chosen to go in another direction and has thus ended the project. I know this may be cause for concern. While I cannot make any promises regarding how this development will impact the team moving forward, I will keep you updated as I learn more about the situation.

Bad News Email Examples and Tips: Managing Life’s Challenges

This blog post has no intention of downplaying how difficult sending a bad news email can be. These situations are never entirely comfortable. That said, by reviewing bad news email examples and tips, you’ll realize they’re manageable. The recipient may be glad to know the news sooner than later.

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