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How to apologize at work

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How to apologize at work
March 15, 2019 1st Anniversary Wishes 3 comments

If it your boss you are apologizing to, asking for help will possibly not work. In that case, just promise not to repeat the mistake and work on how.

Apologizing on the job

When and how to say you're sorry at work.

Career success is all about relationships. And when something goes wrong, it's important to fix it. That may mean an apology is in order.

"Getting back on the right path as quickly as possible is what makes you a good employee," says Anna Post, an author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute.

Post and others offer advice on how to handle apologies in six common workplace situations:

You made a mistake that causes problems for your colleagues

This is a clear-cut case where an apology is called for. You could simply say, "I'm sorry," followed by an offer to fix the problem.

If the situation is complex, use your apology to show you understand the effect of your actions. Meryl Runion, a speaker and author of six books on communication, suggests saying, "I regret that you have to do X, Y and Z because of my mistake. I'm sorry. It won't happen again because in the future I will..."

Someone in your company made a mistake, and you're dealing with an unhappy customer

You don't want to pretend you did it, but you may want to issue a clear apology on behalf of the company. "There are times when you need to take one for the team," Post says. "Somebody needs to apologize." You'll look better making the apology than casting blame on your coworkers.

You're not sure whether you should apologize

Perhaps you sensed during a meeting that your comment had upset a colleague. Before apologizing, try to find out what's going on. Post suggests saying, "'I felt some tension in that meeting. Is everything all right?' If they say they're fine, then you don't need to apologize."

Or maybe you want to express sympathy for a colleague's situation without appearing to accept responsibility for something you didn't do. "Say, 'I regret that it happened this way,'" Post suggests. "What you don't want to do is to apologize for mistakes that really aren't yours."

You contribute to your team missing a deadline

This is tricky, since you want to accept the responsibility you deserve but no more than that.

"Definitely avoid sounding like you're pointing fingers," Runion said. "You might say, 'It wasn't one of our team's finer moments. I can see several things that I could do differently in the future to contribute to a more effective team effort.'"

You regret the words or tone you used, but you were expressing legitimate concerns

In this case, Post suggests saying something like, "I apologize for my tone of voice. I do have some serious concerns. I would like to address those now."

You find yourself apologizing frequently

Make sure you're not apologizing over and over for the same mistake. "Just because you're going to apologize later doesn't give you license to behave badly," Post says.

Nor should you apologize for nonmistakes—this can be taken as a sign of insecurity. "People want to work with people who are confident," Post adds.

And when you do apologize, do it briefly for a small problem and save the long explanations for the big problems.

"If you over-apologize," Runion says, "that is a sign of deference and weakness rather than accountability and strength."

There are some universal rules to apologies that everyone should follow at work, but there are also some important distinctions for managers.

How to Apologize for a Negative Attitude to Rebuild Work Relations

how to apologize at work

It should be simple. But there are many ways to screw up a perfectly good apology.

There is the over-apology — as if saying “I’m really, really sorry” carries more weight. There is the knee-jerk, insincere “sorry!” that does not ring true. Perhaps the worst is the non-apology, which begins “I’m sorry, but….” and ends with a finger pointing at someone else.

Public figures — politicians and business leaders — are especially adept at this. We see these kinds of apologies in the news all the time. But misguided contrition is better than none at all. Right? I do not think so. The issue is that when a person issues a perfunctory apology, they rarely own the fact that they were wrong. You end up with a sorry excuse for a “sorry” — something like what I described above — delivered with minimum effort. Bad medicine.

We all screw up sometimes. It is part of working on challenging tasks and working closely with other people. If you care about the work, you will inevitably butt heads, make a wrong move, or offend a colleague. And in those cases, I think we should apologize for our goofs, gaffes, and mistakes — especially if you value your relationships.

If you are in a leadership role or act as mentor to others, it is up to you to set the example and take your actions seriously.

Putting the feelings of others above your own is not easy. And I am not suggesting that you grovel or lose your sense of dignity in the process. You want to react appropriately to the offense — not to go overboard.

So the next time you need to apologize, try the following:

Consider your actions — Spend time thinking about what happened and how your actions affected others. Did you hurt someone’s feelings or reputation? Waste time or money? Break trust? Taking time to understand exactly how you caused the other person pain will help you deliver an apology that is thoughtful and genuine.

Say “I am sorry” — It seems obvious, but this is where many apologies go wrong. The instinct to avoid situations that will be painful or embarrassing is only natural. But it is important to actually say sorry. A face-to-face apology is best, but if that is not possible, make sure your apology comes from your heart.

Be specific — When you do apologize, explain exactly what you did. Do not gloss over the details. For example, you could say, “I am sorry I snapped at you during the product team meeting. I was in a rotten mood and I took out my frustration on you. It was unfair and I wish I had not done it.”

Express empathy — You do not want to draw out the conflict indefinitely, but you should acknowledge the ways that you caused the other person pain. In the example above, you might say, “I realize that my reaction caught you off guard. I know that I would not want to be chided in front of the team.”

Request forgiveness — Ask to be forgiven. In the example we are using, the other person may be ready to accept the apology and move on. But if you did something more egregious, they may need to work through their emotions. Acknowledge that you are asking for forgiveness but make it clear you do not expect an immediate reply. This will give them time and space to think.

Sure, a contrite apology can be humbling for the person saying sorry. But that is alright. In fact, that is the point.

So the next time you find yourself in the wrong, try to avoid the knee-jerk apology. Take the act of apologizing seriously — offer a heartfelt message. You will grow and others will learn from your example.

Why do you think people have a hard time apologizing?


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How to Apologize to Customers

how to apologize at work

  • Apologies should be sincere, open, and thought through.
  • When apologizing know what you are apologizing for and why.
  • We talked to experts on what should go into an apology.

After fighting with a friend, partner, or family member, it can be tough to make amends. But disagreements, whether large or small, don't have to spell the end of a relationship.

To find out the best ways to apologize, INSIDER talked to Matt Lundquist, LSCW, MSEd, and Rachel Sussman, LCSW.

Here are 13 tips that will help you apologize in a healthy and effective way.

Ask yourself if you actually have something to apologize for

Before you start apologizing for something you've said or done, determine if you're actually at fault.

"There are instances when individuals are called upon to apologize when they haven't really done something wrong or when what they've done isn't as severe as they're being made to believe," Matt Lundquist, LSCW, MSEd, told INSIDER.

Lundquist explained that apologizing for something that's not a transgression or being coerced into making an apology can be unfair or even abusive, depending on the situation.  

Acknowledge you've done something wrong by using an 'I' statement

It may seem obvious, but the first component of an effective apology is admitting that you've done something wrong, according to Greater Good in Action (GGIA), a collaboration between the University of California, Berkeley and wellness-focused social innovation lab Hopelab that synthesizes scientific studies about leading a happier life.

In an interview with INSIDER, Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert, said that one of the best ways to acknowledge that you may have hurt someone is by using an "I" statement, such as "I apologize" or "I know what I did was wrong."

Explain the error of your ways

After you acknowledge you've made a mistake, the next step is explaining what went wrong.

GGIA suggests stating why you acted out of turn, but avoiding excuses like "You were really getting on my nerves."

Good communication skills are necessary to make a healthy apology

According to Sussman, poor communication skills can make it difficult for people, notably couples, to apologize.

"Usually there is one person who is either in the wrong or who escalated a fight. Maybe they weren't in the wrong, but in the fight, they said some really hurtful things," Sussman told INSIDER.

Make sure you're sincere

Lundquist told INSIDER that an unhealthy apology is one that is insincere. If you're just going through the motions of making an apology, it won't be as effective as when you deeply believe in your words.

Similarly, Sussman says that an apology should be "spoken from the heart."

A study published in 2014 in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes also backs up this idea. The study found that people were more likely to accept apologies made by CEOs when they execs looked sad. When CEOs had happy or neutral expressions, their apologies weren't as effective.

Understand that an apology isn't an instant remedy

Although it can be the first step to making amends, an apology is not a panacea against bad behavior.

"There are certain types of folks who believe they can do something wrong and apologize, and an apology is a kind of instant remedy, an eraser," Lundquist told INSIDER. "And when an apology is being used as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, I think it's obviously quite unhealthy."

Show empathy for the person or people you hurt

Sussman said that a good apology shows empathy for the person or people who were hurt.

"You don't have to say the words 'I'm sorry,'" she said, adding that some alternative phrases include "I regret my behavior," "I know I hurt you," and "I apologize for the way I behaved."

Be open-minded about how your behavior affects others

By keeping an open mind about how our behavior affects those around us, it's easier to have honest conversations about our feelings.

"I think there's a lot of value in being open and curious about the impact of your behavior or choice or action on the other person, and taking some time to sit with them and say, 'I'd like to find out more about how come that upset you to better understand your experience,'" Lundquist said.

Explain what you've learned from apologizing

Once you've made an apology, you can go above and beyond by explaining what you've learned from your actions.

Sussman describes this step as "the icing on the cake."

Ask for forgiveness

Experts agree that the final step of making an effective apology is asking for forgiveness.

An example would be saying something like "I know it might take you a while, but I just hope you'll be able to forgive me," as Guy Winch, Ph.D., wrote in an article for Psychology Today.

Understand there's more than one way to apologize

When it comes to apologies, it's not one-size-fits-all. How we acknowledge our offenses varies from situation to situation and working through our emotions is often a collaborative process.

"I think it's a mistake to presume there are fixed, rigid rules or categories for apologizing, or for many things in life," said Lundquist, who studied philosophy in college and draws on concepts such as ethics in his approach to therapy. "I have a strong appreciation for the ways in which, in the context of relationships, people need to be able to figure out together the kinds of rules and norms and values they want to have and the ways that they want to be treated."

Apologize in person rather than via text message if you can

Texting may be the norm when it comes to communication, especially for millennials. But getting in some face time can make a world of difference when you're apologizing.

Still, Sussman understands that some people are uncomfortable making an apology one-on-one. Instead, they can talk on the phone or even write an email.

"Sometimes an email is a great way to send an apology," she said. "It's like in the old days [when] someone would send a letter."

Plus, writing down an apology can help you flesh out your thoughts, she said.

Be willing to walk away from a relationship if someone isn't open to hearing your apology

We can try our best to apologize, but if someone doesn't want to listen, it's often out of our control.

"You might say, 'I'm trying to have an effective conversation about something that hurt me, and if you don't seem to be able to do that or don't have any interest in it, I've got nothing else to say,'" Sussman said.

When a person shuts you down when you're trying to apologize, it could be a sign that you need to reevaluate that friendship or relationship.

It also negatively affects your team when you don't apologize. No one wants to work for a boss who can't own up to his mistakes, and who doesn't apologize for.

3 Reasons to Apologize Even if You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

how to apologize at work

Everyone sticks their foot in their mouth sometimes. We miss deadlines and come up short on projects. A quick and simple apology would go a long way toward mending that fence, but we often avoid it like Aunt Helen's fruitcake. Yeah, we all know "nobody's perfect." So why do we still cringe and deflect when it comes to facing what we've done wrong? 

Because apologizing sucks.

Learning how to apologize to your boss is difficult but totally necessary. Done right, an apology may not only save your job, but also convey an impressive degree of maturity and professionalism. And that's awesome, because it shows your boss you're more than just the sum of your mistakes. Which is more than you can say about the fruitcake.

When and why to apologize

Being part of a team means being aware of your teammates' feelings. It also means being willing to take responsibility when you've offended them. Interpersonal issues, such as arguments or hurt feelings, require an apology to boss and coworkers alike. You need to be able to make amends and keep the peace.

Performance mistakes, such as late or poor quality work, can result in more than just bad blood. These issues can get you fired. Knowing how to apologize to your boss, either in person or in writing, can spell the difference between a simple disciplinary action and outright termination.

How to apologize to your boss effectively

A quick mumbled "Sorry" while avoiding eye contact simply won't do. When it comes to making amends, doing it wrong is almost as bad as not doing it at all. Here's how to apologize to your boss, or anyone, the right way.

1. The sooner, the better.

Waiting too long to apologize is a bad idea. You might hesitate because you're nervous, because, hey, saying sorry is a scary and nerve-wracking experience. But to your boss it will seem as if you don't actually care. Practicing avoidance tells her that what you're really hoping is everything will just blow over. This, in turn, conveys a lack of respect for her feelings and the situation your mistake might have created for her.

Instead, when you mess up, own up to it. Apologize as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours.

2. Keep it short.

There's no reason to let an apology run on and on. A gushing "I am so, so sorry. I can't tell you how super bad I feel" is far less effective than a simple "I messed up. I'm sorry, it won't happen again." Why? Because the more you talk about how you feel, the less you're making it about her and why she deserves an apology.

The best apologies are short, to the point and honest. Don't babble on and make the situation even more awkward, for your boss or yourself. When it comes to apologizing, just rip that band-aid off.

3. Stick to the script.

Apologizing is hard, but it doesn't have to be hard to know what to say. The best apologies have the same basic elements: acknowledge the situation, accept responsibility, say you're sorry and mean it. Sincerity is the most important part, obviously. You need to know why you need to apologize.

An explanation can be useful, but it can also work against you. Beware trying to justify what happened, or going into too much detail about why you messed up. That's just making excuses. "I'm sorry but..." is not an apology.

4. Say you're sorry, and then shut up.

Don't try to fill the quiet after your apology. This is probably the hardest part. You have to let your boss process what you've said, and then wait to see what she does with it. Basically, you're waiting to see what the consequences of your mistake might be. Grit your teeth and ride it out.

At the very least, expect to have a discussion about the situation. And remember, your boss might still be upset about what happened, and need to make her feelings known. That's ok. But don't allow yourself to become equally emotional or defensive. That won't resolve the situation.

5. Accept the consequences.

When it comes to mistakes at work, you might end up facing disciplinary measures. You can find a break down in your employee handbook. Take a moment, before your apology, to review them and to prepare for possible outcomes.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but dreading something is harder than facing it, in the long run. Having an idea of what you might have to deal with can make your remorse even more sincere, which can work in your favor too. Owning up rather than hiding tells your boss a lot about who you are, and how much you value your job.

Basic email apologies

How to write an apology email is another excellent skill. While it's less awkward than in person, getting it right is still important. And keep in mind, it isn't as effective as a face to face apology. Utilize email only when your boss is unavailable to meet, or you've been told to issue your apology in writing.

Subject Line: Missed Deadline

Dear ___

I want to apologize for being late on this assignment. I got caught up with another task. I'll have it to you as soon as possible. I'm sorry about the delay. I will manage my time better in the future.

Thanks so much,


Subject Line: Inappropriate Behavior

Dear ___

I apologize for my inappropriate behavior at/during ___. It was unprofessional and inexcusable. It won't happen again.



Subject Line: I dropped the ball.

Dear ___

I completely messed up my part on this project, and as a result made us all look bad. I have already apologized to my coworkers. Please accept my apology, and know it won't happen again.



Subject Line: Lateness [or other recurring issue]

Dear ___

I want to apologize for coming in late so often. I've been dealing with a ___ issue at home [such as childcare, or a family matter]. I understand this behavior is unprofessional, and I am working to resolve the situation as soon as possible.

Thank you for understanding.


These follow the simple rules of apologizing: acknowledge the problem, offer any relevant explanations and then apologize. You can adapt them as needed, but don't worry so much over the details. The point is you messed up and you're sorry for it. Let your letter be as simple as that.

The consequences of not apologizing.

Mistakes happen. How we deal with them is incredibly important. Saying you're sorry in the right way and at the right time shows how serious you are about making amends. Failing to do so doesn't speak well for you.

Coming off as a jerk isn't great, period, but at work it communicates a degree of unprofessionalism that can affect your reputation. Even if you aren't fired, people are going to remember your behavior. Be sure it will come back to haunt you during a performance review, and affect your chances at a raise or promotion down the road.

Last word

Apologizing is never fun. But a sincere attempt to make amends can keep most situations from escalating further. At work, knowing how to apologize to your boss is a very useful skill. Done right, apologizing can even enhance your reputation. Done wrong, it will do just the opposite. Why? Because how you apologize to your boss tells her just how you feel about your job. Is it important to you? Do you take your responsibilities seriously? Knowing when, why and how to apologize shows her you are sincere about accepting the consequences and finding a way to move forward.

In short, apologizing sucks, but if you do it right, you can prove that you don't.

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Heather Adams is a writer and a photographer. Find her on [email protected]

WATCH THE VIDEO ON THEME: You Screwed Up At Work – Now What? - Work It Daily

Are women apologizing too often at work? I'm sorry there's not a clear answer to that question.

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