JP Rule #10: Never Deliver Bad News Via E-mail or IM. Never.

Just as our moms and Miss Manners tell us to never to break up with someone via email or Facebook, I tell my Project Managers to never, ever deliver bad news to clients or staff via e-mail or instant messenger (IM).

Delivering bad news via email or IM is just plain bad business so why do people do it? They do it because they’re pressed for time. Or they don’t want to face the client and answer tough questions. Or they’re clueless and think sending an email will fix the problem. Or they don’t know how to deliver the bad news and negotiate a solution. Here’s what I tell my team:

  • If you have bad news, you owe it to the other side to deliver the bad news by phone, if not in person. This shows respect and thoughtfulness. Most importantly, a meeting or call is a two-way conversation, not a one-sided delivery.
  • Bad news is any news that might upset someone. The news could be monumental, e.g., Mr. client, we need more time to test the new database. Or less so, e.g., Ms. staffer, you can’t take off next Friday because we have a new site gong live.
  • Some news, even if it’s not bad, deserves a call or meeting. For example, we made the changes the client requested to the home page designs and they don’t look great so we want to discuss alternatives.
  • Email messages, no matter how carefully crafted, can be easily misinterpreted because they don’t have benefit of tone, body language or conversational context.
  • Staff deserve the same thoughtfulness and regard as clients. In other words, don’t assume that because someone works for you, you can deliver bad news via email or IM.
  • In general, IM is a bad way to communicate complex messages and a bad medium for a discussion.
  • When in doubt, pick up the phone or get advice from your manager.
  • Clients and staff aren’t Facebook friends you can post updates to. They are people and they deserve your time and attention.

I have actually found that it’s our ability to turn around a mistake or a bad situation that cements our client relationships. If we have bad news, it’s an opportunity to explain how we got there and what we’re going to do to make the situation better. This can never, ever be done via email or IM.

How about you? Have you ever received bad news via email or IM? What did you do?