Leadership Spotlight

Delivering Bad News to Employees

A stock image of a female supervisor talking with a younger employee.

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.” 

 —H. Norman Schwarzkopf1 

Law enforcement promotion and special assignment selections ultimately involve two groups of candidates: those grateful to be chosen and those disappointed not to be picked. Delivering welcomed news of the decision to selected candidates is easy. The more difficult leadership responsibility is to honestly and effectively inform employees not chosen.

Promotions and special assignments are key motivators for many personnel. They can provide immediate job satisfaction and fulfill certain requirements in pursuit of an employee’s long-term career plans. When an advancement opportunity fails to materialize, it will result in disappointment for and reflection by the individual. How long that disappointment lasts after rejection results from a combination of the employee’s character and the leader’s engagement concerning the missed opportunity.

It is imperative that a leader in the nonselected individual’s chain of command personally delivers the bad news before the decision is announced formally or communicated through unofficial channels. Early notification helps such personnel transition through their own grieving process over the career setback. It also allows them to develop a personal strategy for their immediate interaction with peers, family, and friends.

Two elements, when included in a leader’s delivery of the disappointing news, can help maintain and improve the employee’s motivation and commitment to the organization’s mission.

First, give honest feedback to the individual on areas to improve upon or to focus additional attention. Providing specific and articulable guidance for performance growth gives the employee a benchmark for developing into a more competitive candidate for future selections. If there were clear reasons the individual was not selected, be forthright about those details. This candid discussion may reduce uncertainty and doubts concerning the outcome of the selection process.

Second, secure nonselected employees’ future commitment to the organization by asking them to contribute to the newly chosen candidate’s success. By requesting such engagement, you highlight your belief in their capabilities and value. There also is a latent serendipity to this petition because if the individual expresses or demonstrates an unwillingness to ensure the new incumbent’s success, it indicates that the nonselection was prudent in light of the person’s questionable commitment to the organization. Conversely, if such employees make remarkable efforts to advance the newly promoted candidate, their leadership acumen will resonate within the agency and provide substantial, positive criteria for consideration in future selection processes.

Of course, an honest and fair selection system is fundamental to the effectiveness of leaders when delivering the disappointing news that an employee was not selected for a position. If the selection system is beset with corruption, favoritism, or other unscrupulous behaviors, there is no way to cloak a lack of integrity with a thin veil of leadership. 

FBI Legal Attache Brian Boetig, assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at bpboetig@fbi.gov.


1 Kevin Kruse, “Norman Schwarzkopf: 10 Quotes on Leadership and War,” Forbes, December 27, 2012, accessed May 6, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2012/12/27/norman-schwarzkopf-quotes/#34fe4b504eeb.