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Apologizing | When and How to Do It—And Not Do It—At Work

Rosie Chevalier

A man covers his face in embarrassment with glasses high on his forehead and around him images of a sun, hand shaking and a dialogue bubble saying "I'm sorry."
Illustration by Marian Blair

Apologies in the workplace have become a real talking point, especially considering how few of us enjoy delivering them. Come to think of it…does anyone? 

Apologies certainly have their place. Some people use them as an expression of empathy rather than wrongdoing. And sometimes, colleagues just need to hash things out before they can move on. Still, apologies can be both overused and underused, and even misused, to the detriment of work relationships. 

However big or small the problem, there are some helpful factors to think about when you don’t know how to apologize—or not apologize—at work. 

Sometimes you need to apologize 

Some of us may avoid apologizing at all costs, while others say sorry so reflexively that it starts to lose meaning. You may have experienced the passive-aggressive non-apology, or the apology that’s weaponized to make everyone feel worse. Maybe you’ve even found yourself perpetuating some of these behaviors yourself (it’s okay, work is complicated). 

Whatever camp you fall into, it’s probably safe to say that no one really likes apologizing. But sometimes it’s the right thing to do, and it can make life easier for everyone. If you’ve genuinely made a mistake or bad decision that has affected your colleagues, there’s no shame in saying you’re sorry. In fact, apologizing when you’ve messed up shows co-workers that you’re honest and take responsibility for your actions. Executed with some thought and finesse, an apology can increase your team’s confidence in and respect for you, and demonstrate that you learn from your mistakes. 

How to do it 

Keep these tips in mind if you’ve decided an apology is in order: 

  • Be authentic. An insincere apology is rarely effective, and can even make things worse. Approach your apology as an opportunity to set the stage for a better relationship with the recipient. At its core, a true apology should be about humility and empathy, so focus on how you’ve impacted the other person. 
  • Don’t qualify it. The word “if” doesn’t belong in a good apology, nor does the passive voice. You probably (hopefully) know that something like “I’m sorry if my words caused you to feel offended” isn’t a real apology. Don’t deflate your apology with words that protect you rather than acknowledge their concerns. Be willing to accept responsibility, or don’t bother. 
  • Focus on lessons learned and solutions forthcoming. It’s OK to mention your intentions so that the injured party knows you’re not out to get them, but if your initial aims are at the crux of your apology (for example, if you’re dwelling on what you meant to do rather than the fallout that did occur), you’re missing the point. Keep your focus on what actually happened, and how you can prevent it from happening again. 
  • Remember that you can only control your end of the apology. It may not be accepted graciously, or at all. It may not even be acknowledged. All you can do is move forward with the insights you’ve learned, and the confidence that you’ve accepted your part in what happened. 

Sometimes you DON’T need to apologize 

While apologizing can be the right thing to do, it isn’t always the right thing. You may be tempted to say you’re sorry to avoid conflict, or keep tensions from building. If you’re not at fault, though, beware the false apology. 

Many experts warn that reflexive apologizers—many of them women—can undermine confidence in their abilities, both for others and themselves. Rapid-fire apologizing also doesn’t exactly scream “from the heart,” so try to apologize only when you mean it. 

A few steps that can help: 

  • Ask yourself: "Why am I apologizing?" This seems simple, but it can be revealing. Are you planning to apologize because you know you’re at fault, or because you just want to smooth things over? Consider your reasons, and whether an apology will ring true or come off as weak or manipulative if you don’t really mean it. Also, you don't need to make yourself a scapegoat. Just come up with a solution instead. And on that note…
  • Acknowledge that the mistake or problem occurred, and recommend a solution. Ignoring the issue won’t help you, and blaming others can make you look petty or unprofessional. Skip the “sorry” and speak in practical terms about how to fix or improve the situation. 
  • Prioritize gratitude over regret. This one is a classic for a reason, and works best when you’re addressing a minor offense or something outside your control (i.e., you’re late for a call). Instead of apologizing for something you’re not really sorry about, consider thanking colleagues for their patience or understanding. You’re still acknowledging that their time is valuable, without denigrating yourself in the process.

Get past it 

Whether you’ve apologized or decided not to, your focus should be on how best to move forward. You may still have to prove yourself again after apologizing, or just wait for others to get over it. All you can do is your best, with a solutions-focused attitude, and the understanding that everyone makes mistakes and no one stays mad forever. Or if they do? Consider that an important note about your organization’s culture.  

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Want more on this topic? Learn more about how to curb workplace over-apologizing, or the benefits of humility at work. Don’t forget to subscribe for more great content! 

Rosie Chevalier

Rosie Chevalier is a writer in Chicago who has written for Chicago Education Advocacy Cooperative, Points In Case, RobotButt, Reliving History, and more. She has worked with multiple theatre companies. volunteered across Chicago, and taught writing, acting, and improv to all ages. Her interests include dogs, the news, boats, holidays, and her family, and she's currently attempting to enjoy cooking. 

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