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How to give your boss bad news—and still look so good they'll want to give you a raise

Published on March 12, 2019

No matter how hard you try to prevent problems in the workplace, it’s inevitable that something will go horribly wrong — and that you’ll need to tell your boss.  

But reacting emotionally by hysterically spurting out a lengthy backstory or excuse won’t fix the situation. It could put you at risk of losing your boss’ trust in your problem-solving abilities.  

Bad things are going to happen. But if you can deliver bad news in a way that gives your boss confidence that you’re calm, cool and in control, you’ll be surprised how quickly your reputation grows. In fact, they might be so impressed by how you handled the situation that you’ll get promoted. Here are five steps to doing just that:  

1. Find a good time to talk

People are rarely at their best when bad news is dumped on them without warning. Allow your boss some control over the situation by asking, “Is now a good time to talk?” 

2. Establish that there’s bad news

People who lack command of the facts and data, or try to sugarcoat and cover-up problems tend to look weak, ineffectual and even suspicious. It can be as simple as saying, “I have some bad news about the Johnson account.” 

3. Verify an understanding

Most bosses don’t always know every single thing that’s going on. Verify an understanding by asking, “Are you familiar with the work we’re doing on the Johnson account?” Be prepared to provide a concise response that provides only the necessary context for the bad news you’re about to share. For example, “We’ve been working on the Johnson proposal for the past six months.”

4. Deliver the facts and evidence

At this point, your boss wants first, the hard facts and real numbers, and second, to know that you grasp the seriousness of the situation. Don’t freak out and say something like, “It’s just terrible, the Johnson account called in three other firms!” Doing so will undermine your boss’ confidence in your abilities. Instead, you could say, “After working with the Johnson account for a year and a half in what we thought was a very stable relationship, they’ve just called in three other firms to bid on the work that we’re doing with them.” 

5. Offer some control

You’ve had time to think this over, but your boss may need additional time to catch up. Bosses like to be masters of their own fate — they like to be in control. Provide this control by saying, “That’s the situation. I have a few thoughts on some possible solutions. Is that something you would like to hear about right now?” But make sure you come prepared with two or more solutions. This will increase the chances of your boss actually considering one of your ideas. When offered only one option, many bosses will dismiss it and instead create their own. 

6. Confirm the resolution

After discussing solutions and deciding upon a resolution, confirm that resolution with your boss by saying, “So we’ve decided that we’re going to do [X] and you want me to handle [X], [Y] and [Z] parts of this. You’re going to handle [A], [B] and [C] parts of this. Is that correct?” Eliminate any chance of miscommunication by stating exactly what you’re going to do.

(Source:  AICPA - CPA Letter Daily - Make it - March 11, 2019)