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2 minute read

How to deliver bad news

During a recent compliance podcast, the guests (compliance officers) made a fleeting reference to how hard it was to deliver bad news to their superiors, and that it is one of the most difficult things a compliance officer can do. But that comment had me thinking: Delivering bad news is something every compliance officer will have to do eventually, so what’s the best way to do it?


Well, the first step is to hope that it’s “easy” bad news, but sometimes it’s news like…

🥷One of the most effective, charming, and oh-did-we-mention-high-level employees at your org has likely been bribing government officials. You have to break this news to the CEO. 

💻It appears that a ginormous data breach has hit your org. According to your data breach policy, it’s on you to let Legal Counsel and your CEO know ASAP. Of course, you hardly have any information to share—you’re just finding out about this now!

💸A member of your finance team tells you that the CFO has been embezzling from the organization for years, and they detail exactly how it’s being done. The CFO is highly respected by all employees, leadership, and the board. 

You get the drift. 


How do you share this type of bad news with your superiors, the board, or … anyone at your org? Here are five things you can do:

1. Right time, right place. Determine when and where to share the news. Is the matter so urgent that you need to walk into the CEO’s office right this moment, or can you meet later today? What else is on their plate? 📆 Look at the CEO’s calendar (or whomever you will be speaking to) and—if possible—set the meeting at a time that won’t cause them to be distracted from other critical work.

2. Be calm. From the moment you hear about the bad news until you share it with others (and beyond), keep your cool. 🧘 You’re setting an example—if you fall apart, others probably will too.

Pro tip: By staying calm in an emergency, you’ll set yourself up as a go-to person in the future because you’ll have proven you can keep your cool in difficult situations. (Easier said than done? First, breathe. Then, find your confidence.)

Homer Simpson walking down the street ringing a bell and wearing a sign that reads, "The end is near."

This is an example of what not to do. | Source: Fox’s The Simpsons via giphy

3. Share what you know, clearly and objectively. Share the facts, not what you think may have happened or what so-and-so may have done or who should be blamed. There are probably a lot of unknowns and there is always more to the story. 🔬 Wait until you know the “more,” and be honest about what you don’t.

4. Have solutions in hand. Don’t be a problem-dumper. 💩 Have at least one recommendation at the ready, especially because those who have just heard the news may be shocked and not yet thinking clearly. Share potential solutions so that they can see there’s a way out, however difficult it might be. Even if your solution is not the best one, you’ve helped to get the ideas flowing, and that will be appreciated. 

Trevor Noah tapping the side of his head and saying, "Problem solved."

Source: Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah via giphy

5. Finally—although this one is really first and starts today—make sure you build good relationships across the org. If you have a reputation of saying “no” to everything, or you constantly talk about how the sky is falling, you’re going to sound like the boy who cried wolf: No one is going to listen when you come in (again) with bad news. Even if nothing is going wrong at your org (which you should celebrate! 🥳) start building those relationships today so you have your capital built up for the day it does. 

Need more help sharing bad news or dealing with the aftermath?

Broadcat’s What to know before an emergency situation infographic can help everyone stay as calm, cool, and collected as you are. Crisis over? Our Leading a team after a major event? infographic shows your teams how to get back on their feet.

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