While you might want to fade into the nearest bush Homer Simpson–style when you’ve messed up at work, it’s not really feasible—or mature—to take a duck-and-cover approach. You need to apologize. If not, you can make the situation worse or damage your professional relationships or reputation, among other consequences. So, you need to be equipped with the right words to tactfully address less-than-comfortable situations. (Hint: The first right words are usually “I’m sorry.”)
How to deliver a *real* apology
In order for an apology to be effective, it needs to be done right. Here are four steps to follow:
- Say the words “I’m sorry.” Don’t dance around it. You don’t want your apology recipient to come away not knowing they were apologized to.
- Be specific about what you’re apologizing for. Acknowledge what happened, what you did, and what damage you may have done. Make it clear that you understand why your actions were wrong.
- Avoid justifications and obfuscations. The words “if” and “but” don’t belong in your apology, nor does pushing the blame off on someone or something else. So no, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings during the meeting,” or, “I’m sorry we made an error but you knew we were short-staffed”—and definitely no, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
- Show that you’ll avoid a repeat offense. Talk about what you’ll do differently next time and what actions you’re taking or going to take to help with the present situation (if applicable).
5 times you’ll need to apologize at work (with examples)
Now that you know the basics, let’s look at how to approach the most common workplace apologies, along with examples that can inform what you either say out loud or write in a message or email:
Example apology when you’ve made a mistake you can’t fix yourself
You’re human, so you screwed up on something complex (think: green-lighting something you didn’t actually have the authority to OK). You realize that you don’t have the skills, resources, or authority to fix it on your own, and the only option you have is to admit this to your supervisor or someone else and ask them to help you out. This apology should be timely (since you need help fixing the error—fast). Try something like:
I made a mistake on the BumbleB account. I thought I was taking initiative, but I can see now that I should have run my actions by you first. I’m so sorry and it won’t happen again. However, in order to fix it, I’ll need your help. When’s the best time for us to discuss?
Example apology when you’ve promised something impossible to a client
You’re always striving to exceed your clients’ expectations. You go above and beyond, promising to give them everything their hearts desire. This works well—until you realize that something you guaranteed them simply cannot be done.
If you’re part of a team—even if you’ve been running lead—share your mistake with your colleagues or your manager. They may not be able to help you, but at the very least, they should know what’s going on. When you’re apologizing to your client or customer, make sure you come prepared with a solution.
You might go with:
Unfortunately, I’m unable to provide you with a dedicated account manager with the package you’re looking at. I’m sorry for my oversight. I said yes out of enthusiasm and a desire to give you exactly what you wanted, but I should have checked with our account management team before saying it could be done. Instead, I can set you up with a free one-time training session for our software for anyone who will be using it and a dedicated account manager for the first two months of your subscription to make sure you’re up and running.
Example apology when you’ve offended someone
Maybe you and your coworker were having a conversation, it got heated, and you said something offensive. You probably didn’t mean it—or maybe you did—but now you realize you were in the wrong. Don’t focus on what caused you to say what you did (see justification, above), just focus on the fact that you truly regret saying it.
I realize that what I said earlier was offensive. I was wrong to speak to you like that, it was unprofessional, and I am truly sorry. I will work on keeping my cool in tense situations.
Note: The above apology works if you told someone you think their slogan idea is a Twitter meme waiting to happen. It doesn’t if you said something racist, sexist, bigoted—the list goes on and on, but I know you know that kind of behavior can’t be fixed with an apology example you found on the internet.
Example apology when you’re the bearer of bad news
No one wants to deliver bad news. It can be especially frustrating when it’s something that is completely out of your control, or the result of a difficult call. But if you’re in a leadership position, this will happen—a lot.
I find this type of apology to be a little trickier than the others because it’s not always something you are 100% responsible for, so taking full accountability might not make sense. But the best thing to do is to get to the point quickly, so as to minimize the pain inflicted on those receiving the (less-than-desirable) update.
You could say:
I’m sorry to tell you that, despite my best efforts, your raise request was denied because of our current budget constraints. Please don’t let this discourage you. We truly value your contribution to the team and will try to find a way to show you just how much.
Apology example when you forgot a task
For whatever reason, you completely blanked on finishing a project or other job duty by the deadline. In these cases, it’s important that your apology shows you’re not making excuses and you’re providing a concrete time for when you will be finished.
So you might write an email like this:
I’m sorry for missing the deadline on Project Unicorn. I realize that my error reflects poorly on the team. I can complete my portion of the work by end of day tomorrow. Will that be OK, or would you like to see what I have in draft form sooner than that? I’ve already turned on my Google Calendar push notifications to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Having to apologize is never fun, but it’s often necessary in order to forge, repair, and strengthen relationships in the workplace. So be authentic and sincere and discuss what you might do differently the next time—because a good apology can go a long way.
Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.