How to Write a Negative Message Memo

by Linda Ray ; Updated September 26, 2017
young woman sitting at the desk, isolated on white

You can deliver bad news to employees, customers or management through a variety of methods. Many people prefer to have negative messages delivered straightforward and direct. Others prefer a more subtle approach, couching the message in the least offensive language. Either way, you must deliver news that is most likely undesirable and unwelcome in a clear, concise manner.

Maintain the Relationship

Just because you have unwanted information to relay, doesn’t mean that you have to damage the relationship with the receiving party. Whether you are laying off employees, turning down a donation request or denying travel reimbursement, keep in mind that the situation may change in the future and your decision may be reversed. Add a complement to the memo, such as telling employees how much you’ve valued their contributions. Explain to fundraisers that currently your budget doesn’t allow for certain expenditures. The addition will soften the blow and keep open the lines of communication for possible future relationships.

Frame Message with Positive Language

The words you choose in the memo will help to maintain a positive response, even though you are delivering a negative message. For example, you can ask for more information to process a monetary request rather than writing that the information provided is not acceptable. Tell employees what they can do instead of what they can’t do. For example, write “please dress in business casual wear on Fridays” instead of “don’t wear jeans on casual Fridays.” Send a note to your customer saying “you can pick up your merchandise on Monday,” rather than “your order won’t be ready until next Monday.”

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Prevent Legal Consequences

Company memos often make their way outside of your business walls and into the hands of the media or other parties. Avoid using any language that hints at illegal or discriminatory practices. For example, instead of writing “our accountant is leaving the company because he made extensive errors in year-end reports,” write “after many years of recognized service, our accountant is moving on to other opportunities.” Clarity helps prevent unwanted rumors from spreading that could harm your company’s reputation. An unclear negative message is “due to misconduct, certain financial staff members are leaving.” A better memo reads “we are excited to announce that new financial staff members are set to replace the outgoing members of the accounting department.”

Buffer the Bad News

Negative memos often result in hurt feelings and angry responses. You can alleviate or at least reduce the amount of fall-out from bad news when you buffer it with good news. For example, start a negative memo with “you’ll appreciate the number of added benefits being included in your insurance policy” when you have to raise insurance rates. Keep the buffer associated with the message, however, to maintain clarity. In other words, don’t say “the new parking deck opens next week” when you’re sending a message about a cut in benefits.

About the Author

Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."

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