Should I offer an apology at work?
March 25, 2014 6:47 AM   Subscribe

I screwed up at work - which was compounded by a string of just plain bad luck. It got really ugly. Maybe could even lose my job. I'm thinking of having a heart-to-heart call with my leadership to apologize for the bits that were my responsibility...Not to grovel and save my ass, but to communicate that I know I impacted them and the team. Bad idea? Does an apology ever help in a workplace, or does it just help affix blame and make everyone uncomfortable?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have found apologies immeasurably useful in the workplace, as long as they are made privately, not publicly. However, this only applies if you're working in a good workplace where managers actually want to grow their staff.
posted by corb at 6:55 AM on March 25, 2014 [15 favorites]

Could you contact a mod and post more about your relationship to your boss, how well your company handles mess ups, and how egregious your actions actually were?
posted by Omnomnom at 6:56 AM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

A good apology should come with some concrete ideas for how you will avoid similar mistakes in the future and/or an invitation to work on such a plan with leadership -- I think it can really help to show that you understand why the mistakes were bad, what caused them, and what you are going to do about it.
posted by cubby at 6:59 AM on March 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

This is really individual, I'm afraid - a lot depends on your particular workplace culture, relationship with the leadership, etc. If you're in a particularly hostile workplace you could just be handing them ammunition by admitting your screw-up, or stirring up more anger/annoyance about your screw-up after the dust had started to settle.

That said, I think in a healthier workplace it can be useful to apologize one-on-one to your manager, or a coworker who was affected, or whoever, depending on the situation. If you're talking to a manager, then I think you would be well served to go in with not just the apology, but with a plan of action for how you plan to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, or catch it if it did, whatever is appropriate to your situation. It's amazing the respect and appreciation one can get from managers by being not just the person who takes responsibility but more importantly, the person who understands what happens and offers a solution to fix it, rather than leaving it to someone else to fix.
posted by Stacey at 6:59 AM on March 25, 2014

It can make you look stronger not weaker. That is, you have the confidence to hold your hands up and say mea culpa. If you're a boss, it can also humanise you. But you need to mean it, you can't offer too much in the way of justification (explain before you apologise, doing so afterwards makes you look weaselly) and it and it must feel like a proper sorry, not an excuse.

As others have said, if you work in a horrible, dysfunctional company this may not apply.
posted by rhymer at 7:03 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Apologizing is not very worthwhile, but taking responsibility is. Everyone knows you're sorry; but they don't know that you've learned from it and can prevent it from happening again.

I would frame your call less as an apology and more as a post-mortem. State what happened, be frank about what you did wrong, and then quickly move to your proposed new process/guideline/etc. to prevent this from happening again. That doesn't mean you shouldn't say "I apologize" at some point, but that shouldn't be the focus.
posted by spaltavian at 7:13 AM on March 25, 2014 [24 favorites]

You have to recognize the problem and come up with a plan to address it going forward. As a manager, I'm less concerned that you're sorry or feel bad about what happened and more concerned that it isn't going to happen again.
posted by tommccabe at 7:17 AM on March 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I do something which hurts or offends a colleague or client, I always apologize, whether the workplace is functional or dysfunctional. I know my moral responsibility to do my part in restoring balance. I can't help it if the person to whom I'm apologizing accepts it or not.

Own your mistakes, make whatever amends are reasonable, and move forward responsibly and with a clear conscience. Everyone makes mistakes.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 7:20 AM on March 25, 2014

Your manager will want to know what you've learnt from your mistake, and what steps you're already taking to prevent it from happening in future. In fact, if you could write up a process/guideline as spaltavian mentions, which could help others too, that would go a long way towards turning this into a positive for you.
posted by Dragonness at 7:23 AM on March 25, 2014

I'm an anxious person. I have a tendency to overestimate how responsible I am for stuff that goes wrong, how bad something was that I did, and how awful the consequences are going to be for me and others.

I have to think long and hard before offering apologies, especially in a professional context, mostly because I can't trust my instincts on it, so I have to take time to be sure I'm being logical and realistic. If there's someone I can trust with the details of the situation to give me a reality check, that's really helpful.

Another problem for me because I am often anxious, is that I often come across as anxious. It's one thing for someone to calmly take responsibility for an error. It's something else entirely for a visibly anxious person to shakily overapologize. At worst, it makes people think, "this situation is no big deal; looks like Bentobox cracks under just a little pressure" or "huh, I was going to chalk this up to bad things happen, but it looks like it's someone's fault after all." So if I do need to apologize, I practice what I'm going to say, and I use all my most reliable calming techniques right before I say it.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:28 AM on March 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Unless there is some reason why your managers might suspect that you don't accept responsibiity for what happened or that you don't realize that you caused trouble, I don't think an apology is particularly helpful. I'm always fairly certain that people on my team who have screwed up feel bad about it and an apology would not convey any particularly new or interesting information to me. It is typically obvious to anyone with half a clue via your body language anyhow.

What does impress me and help with the situation is some kind of analysis of what went wrong and how it might be prevented in the future. When someone on my staff meets with me and discusses how they plan to prevent "very bad thing" from happening again, I always appreciate that and it is pretty obvious that includes regret.

If it is something where a preventative action plan isn't appropriate, I don't think an apology would be problematic delivered in the right setting. If someone scheduled a meeting with me and blocked off a calandar slot just to tell me that, I'd find it odd. If you were meeting with me anyhow and just added an apology for screwing up to some other conversation, that would be more natural. You'd probably get some clue as to how I felt about the problem from my reaction.
posted by Lame_username at 7:51 AM on March 25, 2014

I had a similar experience not long ago -- I flat-out dropped the ball, to the point that I got an ominous email from my supervisor (in a different state) saying she would call me later in the week to discuss things.

So I immediately sat down and wrote her back an email saying, in essence, "Yes, I absolutely screwed this up. Here are the three things I've identified as major choke points and how I intend to make my own process better for each of them, plus a couple of overall things that I did wrong and how I intend to do them right in the future."

I never got that call later in the week.
posted by Etrigan at 7:52 AM on March 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

Contrition is good when paired with a level headed sense of what would have been the better course of action. Apologies only go wrong when someone seems sorry to have been caught screwing up or there are vindictive people in the workplace who would use the apology as leverage, but even then a mature attitude toward the remedy diffuses much of this.

Most everyone has been there. Don't be too hard on yourself and try to keep your head in the resolution space, not the fault place.
posted by dgran at 8:22 AM on March 25, 2014

"Heart to heart" talks have no place in (most) businesses.

"Here's exactly what went wrong, and here is what I will change to prevent that ever happening again" is more what you should aim for.
posted by ook at 8:22 AM on March 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Usually, what I do in a situation like this is outline what went wrong, what I could have done to prevent it, and what processes are in place now to prevent it happening in the future.

I've made some howling mistakes, and when I've done this, it has always been well received.

So rather than saying it was 'bad luck', accept that a process needed to be in place, that hadn't been before, and then create a new process to insure that these kinds of things don't happen again.

Good luck! This can be overcome.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:36 AM on March 25, 2014

Yes if it's a calm and sincerely contrite "I'm sorry this happened, this is what went wrong, and this is how I am going to make sure it doesn't happen again." and have a plan ready to present to them showing how it can be avoided next time. They may not take your plan up, they may have their own ideas on what they want you to do to avoid it next time, but being proactive and showing you have learned from the mistake and know how to fix and are going to fix it goes a long way.

Worst comes to worse, and depending on how big you screwed up, you may still get fired, they may use what you presented them to make sure the next person doesn't make the same mistake, but it will leave a better last impression in their minds and with the job market how it is that is not a bad thing.
posted by wwax at 8:49 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do think that acknowledging how your actions impacted the leadership personally (added stress, long hours, frantic decision-making) is a good gesture to make, in addition to the other statements advised here (what went wrong, how to prevent in future). The leadership are people too, and some at least are likely to appreciate your recognition of the personal impact on them. But don't get too gushy. It's still a business, and it's still their job to pick up the pieces once in a while.
posted by Capri at 11:18 AM on March 25, 2014

My boss once came to me for a chat after an event I was nominally in charge of went badly. My first remark in the conversation was 'yeah, I kind of dropped the ball on that one, didn't I?' Her response was to laugh, and then tell me she always appreciates how she can come to me with truly constructive feedback and know that I will not be defensive and will try and do better next time. So the whole tone of the conversation shifted from 'here is what you did wrong, now defend yourself' to 'okay, what can both of us do next time to make this go better?'
posted by JoannaC at 12:42 PM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Apologize once, state how you will do better in future or fix the problem and MOVE ON. I cannot stress this enough. Also don't harp on to your coworkers about how you were maybe 25% responsible but Fred was 50% and Janet was 25% but they aren't in the guilty corner with you (where you put yourself by carrying on and on about it). Moving on well is such an important skill, being poor at it also means you most likely won't get to manage people as they will be too afraid that one of your reports does something bad once and you never forgive them.
posted by meepmeow at 9:16 PM on March 25, 2014

« Older How do I jump ship?   |   Cutting a hole in foundation wall Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.