The Right Way to Apologize on the Job

Career Advice / April 18, 2017

We’ve all been there. People make mistakes. How you handle yourself after that is critical to making amends and moving on with everyone’s dignity intact. Apologizing is all about taking responsibility for your actions and making it right going forward… and then there are times when saying “I’m sorry” is just not appropriate.

When to Apologize

According to Lauren M. Bloom, author of Art of the Apology: How, When, and Why to Give and Accept Apologies, be careful how you go about it. “Apologizing at the office is not the same as in real life,” Bloom writes. “If you’ve done something that may have legal ramifications, be sure you speak to the legal department before you admit any wrongdoing.” If it’s not a potentially legal matter, it’s best to apologize as soon as possible, to whoever was affected by what you did.

She also suggests you don’t compound the problem by making an “inappropriate” apology that could be misinterpreted, such as sending a gift. “It’s best to simply start with ‘I am sorry.’ The wrong kind of apology can be more offensive than the original mistake.”

In her book, Bloom offers a list of 6 essential features that make for an effective apology. In addition to being sincere, owning up to your mistake, and making amends, the sixth and final step is simple: Don’t ever do the same thing again. Says Bloom, “The people who end up with pink slips are those who don’t learn from their mistakes.” 

When NOT to Apologize

Apologizing for the wrong reasons is insincere and ineffective. According to Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of The Humor Advantage, don’t say “I’m sorry” if:

  • You’re not really sorry. If you don’t mean it, it won’t be sincere and your apology won’t be meaningful.
  • There’s no reason. If you weren’t involved in a situation and have nothing to do with it, don’t apologize.
  • You’re sticking to your principles and doing what you feel is right.
  • You’re using the apology as an excuse – “I’m sorry I missed the deadline…”
  • You’re expecting it automatically means you’re forgiven, just because you said “I’m sorry.”
  • You’re about to ask a favor. “I’m sorry, but could you…?”
  • You’re apologizing for other people’s behavior.
  • You’ve already apologized. There’s no need to keep saying it over and over.

When you are constantly apologizing for every little thing in the workplace, you project an image of weakness and insecurity. It’s important to find the balance between “over-apologizing” and not ever apologizing.

How to Apologize

Now that you know when to apologize, here’s how to do it effectively. You want to make it personal and possibly open the door to an even stronger relationship in the future. Here are some tips to follow:

Use Active Language: Don’t say “mistakes were made.”  Instead, say “I made a mistake.”  Take responsibility and share what you plan to do about it.

Don’t Make “Conditional” Apologies: Saying I’m sorry “if anyone was offended” or “if my actions created an inconvenience” implies that maybe there’s really nothing to apologize for.

Don’t Make Excuses: It isn’t useful to give a list of explanations about why this happened… it just looks like you’re making excuses.

Keep it Simple: Overdoing the sentiment seems insincere. Using words like “deepest” or “heartfelt” doesn’t improve the apology. Use plain language to take responsibility for what you did and what you are doing to make amends.

Some Words of Wisdom from a Career Coach

Kamara Toffolo is a Career and Leadership Coach and offers these tips:

Even though you may have a feeling of camaraderie with your colleagues and supervisors and it’s an informal hierarchy at work, it doesn’t pay to be too casual with your superior. Observe the “chain of command” and never make a joke of an apology. Be respectful.

Let your team know if you’ve made a mistake, so they know what’s going on. Then be prepared with a solution to make the situation better.

If the offended party wants to vent, stand there and listen. Don’t interrupt or try to explain. You want them to feel they’ve been heard.

Finally, an apology is a statement of remorse. Although it can be difficult, it sets you on the path to healing the relationship and building trust.