If you work forty hours a week, you probably spend more of your waking hours with your co-workers than you do at home with your family and friends. Knowing how to apologize at work is an important skill that can strengthen working relationships and enhance your professional reputation. However, workplace apologies come with particular conditions that might become pitfalls if you don’t take them into account:
The hazards of gift giving. Offering a gift as part of an apology can be a good way to make amends in private relationships, but selecting an appropriate gift can be particularly risky in the workplace. Giving a gift to a superior can look as if you’re trying to buy your way out of trouble—never a good idea—and giving a gift to a peer or a member of the support staff can seem condescending. If you feel compelled to give a gift to a co-worker as a way of making amends, it’s usually preferable to keep the gift financially modest and gender-neutral. Most often, the best gift you can give is your time and effort. Help your colleague finish a project, back him up in a public meeting, or drop your boss a memo or email describing something your co-worker said or did that you thought was particularly terrific.
The company hierarchy. Your coworkers usually fall into three broad categories: superiors (anyone who’s above you on the organizational chart), your peers, and people ranked beneath you on the company’s organizational chart. Each category requires a slightly different approach. So, for instance, if you have to apologize to a superior: Talk to your boss first. If you need to apologize to a superior, make sure to tell your boss what has happened first (unless, of course, you’re apologizing to your boss). If you and your boss have a good relationship, she may be able to help you in making your apology effective, and she can assist you in managing any fallout. Even if you don’t have the world’s best relationship with your boss, it’s important to let her know what happened. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly end up having to apologize separately not only for whatever you did in the first place but also for failing to keep her in the loop.
Use deference. The further up the company hierarchy you go, the more likely it is that the person to whom you’re apologizing is accustomed to being treated with a great deal of respect. Be extremely courteous as you apologize, and be very careful to avoid seeming defensive or hostile. And avoid making jokes—they’ll rarely be seen as funny.
Don’t interrupt. Once you’ve made your apology, your superior gets the floor for as long as he wants it. If your superior makes a factual mistake when responding to your apology, wait until he’s clearly finished speaking before you politely correct it. Interrupting will only make you seem defensive.
Tell the whole truth. If you’ve made a serious mistake, tell your superiors everything at once. It may be tempting to disclose only the bare minimum, but don’t make that error. Get everything out in the open. Otherwise, you’ll end up looking foolish at best and dishonest at worst when the whole ugly truth comes out later.
Offer a solution. Before you apologize, think through the implications of what you did wrong and come up with a practical way to solve the problem you’ve created. This shows your superiors that you understand what you’ve done wrong and have put effort into considering how to fix it. It also gives you something positive to focus on, which will calm your nerves and help you apologize in a more professional way.
After you apologize. Ideally, your actions after your apology should serve both to smooth relations with your colleague and to protect you if the situation somehow turns nasty again.
Document the outcome. Once you’ve made your apology and it has been accepted, it’s often a good idea to make a record of what happened. Documenting the outcome confirms that the conversation took place, demonstrates your belief that things have been set to rights, and proves that you did the right thing by apologizing to the other person. It also gives you an opportunity to confirm the next steps you’ve agreed to take, so that any misunderstandings can be ironed out before they become major problems.
Follow through. Make sure you follow up on your promises to make amends, documenting their completion with a memo or email to the injured party, and circle back as necessary to confirm that you’ve cleaned the slate with your colleague.
Art of the Apology: How, When and Why to Give and Accept Apologies is an award-winning, comprehensive guide to making effective apologies from every perspective and in every setting. Art of the Apology is available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Lauren M. Bloom is an attorney and interfaith minister who speaks and writes about business and personal ethics.