I’m Sorry: Effective Workplace Apologies

My last post reflected on the importance of “hello” in the workplace. This time, in keeping with our social skills and conflict theme, I am going to discuss apologies and how they fit into good people management.

I am not talking about apologies in the face of potential lawsuits — though this is an interesting topic. See, for example, a 2006 article from HR Magazine that talks at length about “sorry” as a strategy to help avoid or limit liability in workplace disputes.

Rather, I’m talking about apologies as a means of easing or ending conflict between employees.  Recently, I mediated part of a dispute between an executive and a manager in which the executive gave a heartfelt and effective apology for his actions. I didn’t know the theory of apologies at the time, but knew instinctively that he had done it right.

My research showed a fairly consistent definition of what constitutes a good apology.

Subsequently, I did a little online research into what constitutes an effective apology and found a lot of interesting material.  I even found a blog about apologies that evaluates the public apologies we read in the news on a regular basis.

My research showed a fairly consistent definition of what constitutes a good apology: (1) accurate expression of the offense; (2) recognition by the offender of responsibility; (3) acknowledgement of the offended party’s pain or embarrassment; (4) judgment that the offending act was wrong; (5) a statement of regret; and (6) statement of the offender’s future intentions.  I got these elements from a handout by the Columbia University Ombuds Office that appears to be used by many other organizations as well.

So what would this look like? (1) “Yesterday, I said ….” (2) “I did not think before I spoke” (3) “It’s understandable that you were upset” (4) “It was insensitive of me to say that” (5) “I am very sorry” and (6) “In the future, I will ….”  The apology can be made orally or in writing depending on the situation and needs of the parties.

And what shouldn’t the offender say? We’ve all heard these: “I’m sorry, but you ….” or “I’m sorry if you were hurt by what I said.”  Or the right words are said, but in a resentful tone.  Apologies that are insincere or blame the victim can be worse than no apology at all.

Have any of you had good or bad experiences in using apologies to resolve workplace conflict?      ~AS

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One response to “I’m Sorry: Effective Workplace Apologies

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