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How to apologize at work

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Material drawn from: "Saying You're Sorry," by Peter M. Sandman. Complete article available on the Peter Sandman Risk Communication Web site at



Unless you're some kind of saint, you've probably at one time or another said or done something unkind. Out of envy, fear, greed or pettiness, you dumped on somebody you shouldn't have. Or, through an honest mistake, you cost a client a lot of money or a co-worker a weekend of extra work.

What can you do to own up to your misstep without making things worse? How can you repair the damage you caused and win back your credibility?

Risk communications consultant Peter Sandman has extensive experience counseling clients in crisis how to apologize without opening the litigation floodgates.

Sandman believes an apology can go a long way in healing wounds and reducing outrage, but says apologizing has become a lost art. To apologize effectively, he recommends taking these steps:

1. Own-up immediately: Apologize as soon after the offense as possible. An apology weeks or months after the fact doesn't say "I'm sorry," as much as "I'm sorry I got caught."

2. Say what you did: Don't use vague or veiled language. Just a short and direct statement: "This is what I did wrong." Then briefly explain the extenuating circumstances as to why you did what you did.

Sandman cautioned to be careful not to emphasize the extenuating circumstances more than the misbehavior or imply that they justify what you did.

3. Say you're sorry: Sandman said the task here is to make your apology as heartfelt as you can without assuming liability: "I regret what happened to you" is too impersonal. "I feel terrible about what I did" is good. "It's my entire fault" is dangerous.

Tone is important here. As Sandman put it: "You get no credit for apologizing unless you first say what you did; and you get no credit for saying what you did unless you say it apologetically."

4. Take the heat: Here comes the hard part: After you say you're sorry, be quiet and listen while people tell you how angry they are.

Don't be a "premature preemptive apologizer," who says in effect, "I'm sorry. Now drop it." Apologies work best if you let the wronged party vent his or her emotions first.

5. Make it right: Do your best to correct the problem and compensate your "victim." Making it right doesn't have to mean making it perfect; but your intention has to be genuine and the progress you make in rectifying the situation real.

However, promising more than you can deliver is a sure way to set yourself up as the target of future outrage.

Sandman said order is crucial in the process of apology and forgiveness.

"When people are outraged, premature offers of compensation usually just make the outrage worse," he explained. "Unless you own up to what you did first and apologize, no amount of compensation will be acceptable."

6. Demonstrate you've learned your lesson: Finally, show you are repentant. Go out of your way to do something extra nice for the person you wronged. And never, ever make the same mistake twice!

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority
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