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I’m sorry, so sorry: how to apologize at work

by Molly DiBianca

Humility is a virtue. For most of us, it doesn’t come easily. Owning up to a mistake at work can be a difficult task, particularly for employees who want to be good at their jobs and please those they report to. Nonetheless, apologizing is a reality of professional life and a recognition that no matter how hard we try, none of us is perfect. Here is some brief guidance on offering a strong apology.

Own it. When you make a mistake at work, own your actions. And own them completely. Don’t combine an apology with an excuse. Omit the word “but” from apologies. For example, say, “I apologize. I sent the shipment sooner than I should have.” Don’t say, “I apologize. I thought you said to send the shipment yesterday.” The second example sounds more like blame shifting than an apology. Own up to your errors fully.

Don’t overdo it. Your apology should be commensurate with your mistake. If you miss a big meeting, your apology should be in person. If you are 15 minutes late to the meeting, a less formal apology is probably required.

Offer a solution. Employees who offer a solution for the problems they’ve caused come out looking like problem solvers — a positive attribute in any workplace. Can’t solve the problem? Then explain what steps you have taken to try to solve it. Just dumping a problem on another person (especially your boss) is not a good idea. At the same time, make it clear that you will ensure that the problem does not occur again. Be clear that you won’t make the same mistake twice.

Apologizing is hard. Allowing an issue to slip by without commenting on it is easy. However, maintaining strong workplace relationships is worth the difficulty of making a sincere apology when you make mistakes. Also, apologizing sets an example for how to accept responsibility for errors and do better next time. As Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

Molly DiBianca is an attorney with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, practicing in the firm’s Wilmington, Delaware, office. She may be contacted at mdibianca@ycst.com.