Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Bad News Is Worse through Email

People prefer old-fashioned voicemail messages to emails when receiving bad news.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Bottom Line: People who get bad news from companies significantly prefer to be disappointed via voicemail rather than email, appreciating the interpersonal aspect of the human voice over plain text. This leads to a better attitude toward the company, despite the letdown. 

When you have to deliver bad news in the course of doing business, it’s naturally tempting to use email. Avoiding confrontation in an unpleasant situation is only human, after all, and research has confirmed that managers prefer to email rather than call when they have to convey ill tidings. But a new study that examines people’s responses to getting a disappointing message finds that although they comprehend emails more fully, they would much rather be let down by a company via voicemail. They still appreciate the interpersonal touch of the spoken word and this appreciation, in turn, leads to employees and customers having a better opinion of the company, despite being disappointed.

People still appreciate the interpersonal touch of the spoken word. 

The fundamental difference between email and voicemail, of course, is that email relies on the written word and voicemail is spoken. This affects how messages are understood: Readers can study the text over and over again or skip around to read what they like, so they may have a better understanding of the message. But vocal cues are possible only in voicemails, which give listeners hints about the speaker’s age, emotional state, gender, and even sincerity or empathy.

The authors studied two types of communication structures to see whether the composition of the message made a difference to the recipient. In the indirect approach, a series of explanations preceded the ultimate delivery of the bad news. In the direct approach, the bad news came first, and the reasons were listed afterward.

More than 1,100 participants, ages 15 to 77, were presented with either voicemails or emails, in the direct or indirect format, containing moderately bad news. Reasoning that no sender would realistically leave a voicemail or send an email to deliver seriously grave information (such as the death of a loved one or a dismissal), the authors had participants evaluate business-related messages designed to convey a letdown, but not a tragedy.

The scenarios included a company telling its customer that a broken iPod or TV was either irreparably damaged or too expensive to fix, that a holiday trip would have to be canceled, or that a medical test needed to be retaken. Other participants evaluated messages saying they would be slightly demoted at work, didn’t get the promotion they wanted, or had been turned down after submitting an external job application.

The participants answered detailed questionnaires about their opinions of the message. The results were clear, the authors write. Participants regarded email messages as more comprehensible than voicemail (presumably because they could analyze all the text in front of them), but placed a much higher value on the persuasive and interpersonal appeal of voicemail. Specifically, voicemails generated more agreement on the part of the recipient with the reasoning behind the news, created a better image of the company that left the message, and led to a more positive evaluation of the customer’s future relationship with the firm.

When listeners sense the “emotional leaks” of the person leaving a message, such as slight fluctuations in tone or attempts to project authority or empathy, they are more sympathetic toward the company, the authors write. In general, people are also more tolerant of errors or stumbles in oral communication, because everyone knows how hard it is to leave a decent voicemail, especially one that contains delicate information.

The effects of the differing message structures were less pronounced. But overall, people clearly valued the indirect structure—wherein the recipient was let down more softly, after first being given the reasons for the disappointing news—more than the direct, decision-first approach. This was especially true for emails. Readers of a direct email were much less inclined to agree with the company than were those who got an indirect email, and the effectiveness of direct emails also paled next to that of direct voicemails. The lesson seems clear: If you’re going to send an email with bad news, make sure to couch the negative news carefully, after first laying out the explanation. And if you have the option, go for the voicemail.

“In situations in which the relationship between senders and receivers is fragile, as is the case in bad-news communication, senders may well consider voice mail as a medium,” the authors conclude. “Although senders often choose email to convey bad news to avoid direct confrontation, this study shows that presenting the same information orally is beneficial for the acceptance of the message and the relationship between senders and receivers.”

Source: Effects of Directness in Bad-News E-Mails and Voice Mails, Frank Jansen (Utrecht University) and Daniel Janssen (University of Antwerp), Journal of Business Communication, Oct. 2013, vol. 50, no. 4

Editor’s note:

Our editorial operations will be closed until Thursday, January 2, 2014.

Happy holidays from all of us at strategy+business.


Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.