Tell me about a time when you needed to communicate bad news to a colleague or stakeholder?
Question forms part of
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What the interviewer is looking for by asking this question
This is a fairly common interview question so do not be concerned that in asking this question the interviewer is implying the role will be entirely dishing out bad news to people.
In business there will very often be times where you need to communicate bad news to someone.
- Telling a customer you do not have a product
- Telling a supplier you will be going with a different vendor going forward
- Telling an employee they are being made redundant
- Telling a boss that your team will not achieve its targets
The interviewer is looking to see how you handle these types of situations, whether you can navigate them directly and leave a good impression – even while delivering bad news – or if you will struggle and make the organisation look bad as a result.
When asking this question the interviewer wants to know if you are experienced in this area and wants to see how you have handled tough situations like this in the past.
The best approach to answering this question
This is a behavioural question so as always it is best to answer with a past example. Use the B-STAR technique to structure your answer for maximum effectiveness
Belief – You should talk here about how you usually approach delivering bad news. The best answers will talk about how bad news is best delivered directly – no beating around the bush – and with empathy. Talk about how you prepare yourself well for any questions that are asked and always have a plan of action for the next steps
Situation – There’s no one-size-fits-all best situation to describe for this question as it will heavily depend on the role that you are applying for. If you are going to be a manager of people the best answer is always to talk about when you needed to let someone go. For other roles a late deliverable is a good example to give, or if you are in analytics maybe a target that was missed.
Task – Make sure you give an example where it is your job to deliver the bad news, just being in the room is not enough. Have the responsibility fall squarely on your shoulders.
Action – Walk through how you planned your delivery ensuring you had all of your I’s dotted and T’s crossed. Then talk about how you communicated the news; did it go well, were there any follow-up questions, shouting, crying, laughing? All of the above?
The best answers will be when the other person was upset/angry but you were able to smooth it over due to your prior planning.
Result – Finally talk about the end result, did anything actionable come on the back of it? Were any lessons learned. Always talk about something you learned during the experience as it shows the interviewer that you are capable of growth.
How NOT to answer this question
“I am a people pleaser, I always look for ways to turn the situation around. When you are as successful at this as I am you never need to actually deliver bad news because there isn’t any. For example in my current role…”
It doesn’t really matter what the example was in the answer above. The candidate here has completely avoided the question.
Sure it might sound good that the person looks to turn around situations and avoid the need for delivering bad news but in the real world this is just not feasible. There will always be situations that cannot be turned around. Answering like this will scream ‘I am inexperienced’ to the interviewer.
“I have no trouble delivering bad news to people. In my current role I have had to let over 10 members of staff go either due to budget cuts or their underperformance. It is a necessary part of doing business. I just keep things straight and to the point. Tell the colleague the company has decided to let them go and send them on their way”
This answer lacks empathy – which might be the right way to go if you are interviewing for an especially cut throat industry. But most of the time in most industries this type of cold approach to leadership is not welcome.
Tell me about a time when you needed to communicate bad news to a colleague or stakeholder?
Example Answer 1
“I believe that bad news is best delivered in person and discretely, where it is responsible to do so. I don’t particularly relish giving bad news (I suppose not many do) so I often try to resolve the situation in advance so the bad news never needs to be given.
Obviously though that isn’t possible all of the time. For example in a previous role I managed a team of complaint handlers when word came down from senior management that we were offshoring a large part of our process and this meant layoffs of nearly 40% of the department.
I tried to go to bat for my team and show how our quality and production scores were the highest around and unlikely to be replicated using our offshore colleagues, but the decision had been made and was purely cost driven.
It was my job to determine which members of my team would be let go and which would stay.
We had all joined the department together on the same contract so there was no element of seniority that needed to be accounted for. Instead I devised a balanced scorecard type of approach, ranking each team member against the department’s relevant KPIs (quality, production, skills).
Once I had my list I booked one-on-ones with all of my team members as close together as possible, starting with the colleagues who would be staying. With the colleagues who were being let go I got straight to the point and told them the company would be terminating their contract. I allowed them to ask any questions they wanted and informed them that I would be around for any help they needed in looking for a new role.
During the meetings 2 of the colleagues I wanted to keep informed me that they were planning to leave soon anyway and suggested that they would leave now instead freeing up room for other colleagues to stay.
In the end I had to tell 6 members of my team that they were being let go. They were all understanding of the situation and were grateful that I offered to help them look for new roles.
Going forward if I were to be in the same position I would have gone to the meetings with some open positions that I would recommend the colleagues apply for”
Example Answer 2
Certainly, there was an instance in my previous role as a project manager in a software development company that stands out. One of our key projects was behind schedule due to unforeseen technical challenges. The situation was such that the delivery date would have to be pushed back by two weeks, and I was tasked with communicating this to our primary stakeholder.
To begin, I gathered all the relevant information about the delay, understanding the root causes, the steps we had already taken to address it, and our planned course of action to get the project back on track. I believed it was important to present a complete, transparent, and objective picture of the situation so the stakeholder could understand the reasons for the delay and the efforts we were putting in to mitigate it.
Before meeting with the stakeholder, I scheduled a meeting with my team to discuss the best approach. We agreed on a plan that included not just resolving the immediate issue but also implementing steps to prevent similar issues in the future.
Having prepared myself with all the necessary details and a plan, I arranged a meeting with the stakeholder. I started by acknowledging that I had disappointing news to share. I believe it’s important to set the right tone from the outset, and I didn’t want to sugarcoat the situation.
I then explained the problem in detail, discussing the unexpected technical challenges we had encountered, how these had affected the timeline, and our efforts to address the issue. I made sure to emphasize that we had not taken the situation lightly and that we had utilized all available resources to minimize the delay.
After presenting the problem, I detailed our plan for resolution and future prevention. I outlined the steps we would take to expedite the remaining work and the measures we planned to implement to avoid similar delays in future projects.
Finally, I reassured the stakeholder of our commitment to the project and to maintaining the quality of the work despite the setback. I also expressed my regret for the delay, reinforcing that we valued their partnership and understanding.
The stakeholder appreciated my transparency and the comprehensive plan I presented. Although they were understandably disappointed with the delay, they expressed their appreciation for our efforts to manage and resolve the situation, and our relationship remained strong and positive.
In hindsight, this experience taught me a lot about the importance of open communication, especially when the news is not good. It’s essential to be prepared, honest, and proactive in presenting both the problem and the solution.
More Sample Answers…
The examples provided above can serve as a foundation for creating your unique answers. For additional inspiration, our new guide includes five sample responses to this question and over 100 answers to all of the most common interview queries.
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