Your workplace culture should acknowledge that people make mistakes and help your staff to learn from them. An important part of this is knowing when and how to apologise.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the CEOs of banks and financial institutions before the current Royal Commission, three ex-members of the Australian cricket team (ball tampering) – public apologies have been front-of-stage over the past few weeks. But in each case the public reaction has often been cynical.

The apologists have sometimes been accused of not being genuine (“I’m sorry I was caught” or “I’m sorry you feel that way”) and/or of positioning themselves, either to save their careers, avoid legal proceedings against themselves and their organisations, or later to challenge the severity of the sanctions against them.

Apologies are sometimes necessary in workplaces — from a manager to an employee or employees, from one co-worker to another, or from an employee to his/her manager. But they will be worth very little unless they are genuine. However, many people find it extremely difficult to make a genuine apology. The key to overcoming that problem is to promote a workplace culture that allows people to freely admit their mistakes and apologise for them.

An apology that isn’t genuine fails to show contrition or take responsibility for the consequences of the person’s conduct. It may be followed by an attempt to excuse the conduct (eg comments were “off the cuff” or “made in private”) and a remark like “now let’s move forward from this and not dwell in the past”, which makes the impact even worse.

These days apologies tend to be demanded more frequently because of the greater “connectedness” of society due to social media, which has made it far more difficult to hide from or brush aside acts of wrongdoing. Those trends apply to workplaces as well, so the ability to apologise when necessary will become an increasingly important management skill.

Loss of trust if you don’t apologise

The major consequence of not apologising for mistakes at work is a loss of trust at the workplace. Once lost in this way, trust is extremely difficult to regain. This in turn has a domino effect on the workplace culture, engagement, productivity, retention and ultimately the bottom line. 

What makes a proper apology?

Responsibility – take full responsibility for the conduct
Remorse – actually say “sorry” and say that the conduct will not be repeated
Restitution – describe the steps required to mitigate the damage

When should you apologise?

When at least one of the following exists:

  • An apology will serve a specific purpose, eg defuse a potentially explosive situation, or redirect attention back to an important issue
  • The (mis)conduct is serious
  • He/she needs to take responsibility for what happened
  • No-one else can do it
  • The cost of apologising is less than the cost of saying nothing 

Also ask the following questions: 

  • What would a proper apology actually achieve?
  • Why would an apology matter (eg strategic or moral reasons)?
  • Who would benefit from it?
  • Can you expect a sincere and contrite apology? If not, it may do more harm than good.
  • Is it likely to placate the aggrieved person(s) and hasten resolution of conflict?
  • Would an apology create legal problems?
  • What may happen if there is no apology? Will the problem fade away or will it escalate?

Fundamentally, it’s a culture issue

Apologies will be an effective step if there is a workplace culture that accepts that mistakes will be made, acknowledged and learnt from. It should be OK to make mistakes, admit to them without fear of punishment, and be able to learn from them. This means employees take responsibility for their own conduct and don’t try to deflect blame onto others.

Training people in how and when to apologise is not the answer, although providing them with advice can be helpful. A supportive culture is much more important, and the actions of managers as role models will strongly influence that.

Managing interpersonal behaviour in your workplace is much easier if you have the appropriate HR policies in place. Fresh HR Insights policies and documents which can help include:


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  • Personal Grievance Policy
  • Anti-Discrimination and EEO Policy
  • Code of Conduct
  • Complaint and Grievance Form
  • Conflicts and Personal Relationships in the Workplace Policy
  • Discrimination and Harassment Complaint Response
  • Notice of Discrimination or Harassment Complaint
  • Performance and Misconduct Policy
  • Workplace Bullying Policy

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Written By Mike Toten on 26th Apr 2018