- To apologize the right way at work, acknowledge what happened, state your mistake, and take corrective action based on what you’ve learned.
- Avoid apologizing too often or apologizing for others’ mistakes, and don’t take constructive criticism as a reprimand.
- Short, prompt and (if possible) in-person apologies are best.
- This article is for team members of all levels who want to craft better workplace apologies.
Everyone makes mistakes. That’s why a good apology is one of the most important tools in workplace communication. If you make a big mistake, consider the best way to apologize, whether to your boss, employees or co-workers.
The first step toward apologizing – especially as a manager – is having the right mindset: You have to own your mistakes. With that in mind, here’s how to craft the perfect workplace apology.
4 steps to the perfect work apology
Follow these steps when crafting your apology.
1. Acknowledge what happened.
Acknowledging the event serves two purposes: It validates your team’s ideas about what occurred, and it defines the mess-up, so people know what you’re apologizing for. This is a simple first step, but it’s an important one to take.
Part of apologizing involves communicating empathy and assuring the other party that you understand how your behavior affects others. Mentioning the event sets you up for an empathetic apology.
“Own it, and don’t try to hide it or blame anyone else,” said Vicki Salemi, career expert with Monster. “It’s always best to be succinct; don’t ramble. ‘This is what happened, I’m responsible, this is what I’m going to do to fix it, and this is what I learned.'”
2. Admit your mistake, but don’t focus on your initial intentions.
After acknowledging the event, you need to own your mistake. This is the most important part of the apology. Often, people make excuses, blame others, or don’t appropriately take responsibility. Apologizing can be awkward, but if you take responsibility, your peers and manager may respect you more in the long run. A good apology exposes character, so treat the action as just that: an exercise in good character.
“Own up to your part in whatever happened,” said Tara Vossenkemper, founder of The Counseling Hub. “When you have an otherwise good relationship with your boss, employee, or co-worker, taking ownership of your role only serves to strengthen that relationship and build trust between the two of you.”
Vossenkemper said that a good apology doesn’t involve extensive explanations about why the event happened. Moving into this territory can bog down your apology – you don’t want to focus on why something happened and its lead-up. Instead, own your mistake and move on to how you can improve the situation.
Focusing on an explanation can also sound defensive. You may feel like you want to say your piece, and sometimes it’s justified, but often the person you’re apologizing to won’t care about your original intentions. The mistake happened, and it’s time to figure out how to remedy it.
“Just say you’re sorry for the specific thing you did and leave it at that,” Vossenkemper said. “The only thing the explanation does is dig a metaphorical hole and make your listener feel defensive, as though you’re trying to rationalize or excuse your behavior.”
Key takeaway: There’s no need to explain why you made a mistake. State what the mistake was, and move on to the next steps in your apology.
3. Concentrate on what you learned.
The best thing you can do during an apology is talk about what lesson the situation has taught you or your team. Mistakes happen in the business world; Salemi points out that some company cultures have a stress-free work environment that actually encourages mistakes because they’re growth opportunities. By prioritizing what you learned from the mistake, you can shift the discussion toward something positive.
Everyone makes mistakes; the real problem comes from allowing the same mistake to happen more than once.
“Bosses and colleagues want to know that we won’t make the same mistake again,” said Bob Graham, co-founder and CEO of Serious Soft Skills. “Show them you learned the lesson by explaining, in a sentence or two, what lesson you learned.”
Graham said managers and colleagues want to see their peers evolve and learn. By focusing on the lesson in your apology, you can communicate that you’re an intelligent, self-aware employee who can handle responsibility and problems with grace.
“A good apology can open, not close, doors,” Graham added.
4. Suggest a plan or solution.
After talking about the lesson you learned, suggest a plan, talk through a solution, or mention how you can help rectify the situation. This is the second stage to shifting the discussion away from the mistake and toward a positive outcome. By communicating your willingness to help, you back up the lesson you learned from the mistake with meaningful action.
If you follow these steps, you’ll put yourself in the best position possible after a big mistake in the workplace. Every situation is different, but if you follow this plan, your co-workers, manager or employees will eventually come around.
What to avoid when apologizing at work
Apologizing when necessary is important, but apologizing in the wrong way – or at the wrong time – can be worse than staying silent. Here are some key things to avoid in your workplace apologies:
Apologizing too much
In general, it’s not a smart strategy to apologize for every little thing you do wrong. While appropriate in some instances, workplace apologies should occur after big mistakes or when your whole team or a group of co-workers witnesses a mess-up. Apologizing 24/7 can create the wrong impression in the workplace, according to Salemi.
Taking the blame for things that aren’t your responsibility
There’s no need to apologize for someone else on your team – even a supervisor – not pulling their weight. That’s true even if their blunder doesn’t make you look so great.
Instead of apologizing to whoever is asking for something to be rectified, say that you’re looking into it with the appropriate people. Don’t name anyone – you don’t want to throw your teammates under the bus – but do lay out an action plan without apologizing.
Continuing to make apologies that go unrecognized (or hearing too few apologies from others)
While apologies can be awkward, they also serve as a window into your company’s culture. If you find yourself issuing an appropriate apology that is still not well received, it can be a workplace confidence killer. If that happens, it may be time to analyze your current workplace and decide if it’s a good fit for you. This is also true when managers and co-workers apologize (or fail to apologize).
“Bosses aren’t above the law,” Salemi said. “Leadership stems from the top down.”
Tip: If your apologies fall on deaf ears – or if you don’t hear apologies from others when you should – you might not be the problem. Your current workplace or company culture might be the issue.
Viewing constructive criticism as a reprimand
Team members at all levels can, and should, receive constructive criticism from their peers. Research has found that constructive criticism delivered after a task is completed has a substantial impact on future performance. One way to sap that future impact, though, is to take constructive criticism as a reprimand.
When someone advises you on how to do something differently, they’re not doing so out of disdain or ill will. If anything, they want you to improve and are taking active steps to help you do so. That’s why you shouldn’t say “I’m sorry” when you receive constructive criticism. Instead, say “thank you,” and then act on the advice you’ve received.
Not taking corrective action
If something you did merits an apology, it’s one thing to say you’re sorry. It’s another to put actions to your words. So don’t just apologize– put forth a plan, as discussed above, and then act on it. This way, your apology doesn’t ring hollow, and you can rebuild any trust lost in whatever fallout you’re piecing back together.
If you can’t immediately take corrective action, a good apology can mean showing what you’ll do differently next time.
Example of a good apology
Here’s a basic example of a good apology that follows these four steps:
“Hi, Anna. I want to apologize for the mistake in this month’s budget. I didn’t communicate properly with the team, which is why the numbers don’t match up. I now know to include Bennett and Kiely in all my future budget meetings because they have vital input. I’ve adjusted the numbers and can resubmit this month’s budget now if you feel that’s an appropriate course of action. Thank you for working with me on this.”
Other tips for a good apology
The four steps above are ideal for creating an apology. However, you should keep some other tips in mind when you apologize.
- Keep it short and to the point. Multiple experts suggest keeping your apologies quick and painless. Long ramblings can make the event uncomfortable and result in the actual apology getting lost in the middle of a long discussion. Don’t dwell on what happened, and don’t try to explain your situation. Say you’re sorry and go into lessons and solutions. Afterward, move on. There’s no need to linger on what happened.
- Do it as soon as possible. Don’t wait to apologize. Rectify the situation immediately so everyone can move on.
- It’s OK if it’s awkward. Apologies are awkward, especially when they’re in person. Embrace the weirdness of the situation. Remind yourself that apologizing properly is an exercise in good character before anything else. As Graham said earlier, sometimes an apology opens doors.
- Try to apologize in person. While email apologies are sometimes appropriate, make an effort to apologize in person if you made a big mistake. While it may be awkward or difficult, your colleagues will respect you for taking the time to apologize directly. You may leave with a better resolution – it’s often easier to connect in person than over email. Everyone knows how empty a “no problem” email response can be. In-person apologies may not be possible if your team is entirely remote. In that case, the best video conferencing services like Microsoft Teams may provide a solution. (Read our Microsoft Teams review for more information.)
How to apologize as a manager
There are universal rules to apologies that everyone should follow at work, but there are also some important distinctions between apologies from managers versus those from peers.
While all the above rules apply to managers, there are additional considerations for how managers should apologize to their team if they make a mistake. The most important aspect of an apology from management is owning the mistake. Managers show true leadership when they lead by example. By showing you’re not afraid to be wrong, you empower your team to do the same.
- Apologize in front of your team. The general rule is if you publicly make a mistake within your company, you should apologize in front of your whole team. This should be in person, or over video chat if you manage remote employees, and should spur discussion about lessons and solutions moving forward.
- Follow up with a private apology, if appropriate. If an incident occurs with a specific employee and other team members witness it, apologize to that person in private and again in front of the whole team. A public apology can provide justice to your employee and show that you’re aware of what happened. The private apology can further heal any wounds the event caused.
Tip: If you’re a manager, learn to spot emotional intelligence skills when hiring. These people can understand and manage their emotions and will likely handle apologies with grace.
What apologies say about company culture
You’re going to make mistakes at work, and you’re going to have to apologize for them. Salemi recommends taking note of how your apologies are received at work. She said workers should be aware of how their colleagues and bosses apologize when they make mistakes. If employees are disrespectful and people routinely make excuses, cover up problems, or stubbornly blame others for issues, it may be time to consider switching to a new company.
As with any job, task or relationship, true colors are exposed when situations get complicated and people are tested. Mistakes and apologies provide windows into who your colleagues really are, giving you an opportunity to assess your current working situation and determine if the culture is the right fit for you.
Max Freedman contributed to the writing and research in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.