No matter where you work or what you do, you’re eventually going to have to apologize to someone for something. That’s a fact of life. In a workplace filled with humans, you will invariably run into a variety of situations where feelings get hurt. As it’s not really feasible—or mature—to take a duck-and-cover approach when things get heated at the office, you need to be equipped with the right words to tactfully address less-than-comfortable situations.
In order for an apology to be effective, it needs to be done right. Experts agree that the best ones include acknowledgement and understanding of what happened and the damage done. You should also recognize your role, take responsibility for it, and communicate regret. What you should omit are any justifications and the words “if” or “but.” So, “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” is not making up any ground.
Now that you know the basics, here are scripts for the most common workplace apologies:
1. You Made a Mistake That 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 to fix it on your own, and the only option you have is to admit this to your supervisor and ask her to pull some strings and help you out. This apology should be timely (since you need help fixing the error—fast), and open to accepting responsibility. In addition, it should include an assurance that it won’t happen again.
I made a mistake on the ‘B’ Case. 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?
2. You 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 boss. They may not be able to help you, but at the very least, they should know what’s going on. Then, come prepared with a solution for when you break the news. If you’re going to tell a client you can’t do something, you want to be prepared to share what you can do instead.
Unfortunately, I’m unable to provide you with [what I promised you]. 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 resources/budget/bandwidth before saying it could be done. Here’s what I can offer you instead...
3. You Offended Someone
You and your co-worker were having a conversation about something, it got heated, and you said something that offended her. You probably didn’t mean it—or maybe you did—but now you realize in order to keep the peace at the office, you need to smooth things over. Don’t focus on what caused you to speak out (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 his slogan will be as popular as New Coke. It does not apply 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 template.
4. 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 something you are 100% responsible for. 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.
Despite my best efforts, I’m sorry to tell you that your promotion/raise/vacation/project was denied. The reason was because of budget cuts/staffing/current priorities. 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.
5. You Forgot a Task
For whatever reason, you completely blanked on finishing a project by the deadline. To make matters worse, your boss found out before you had a chance to scramble and get it done. He is not happy! So, 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.
Face the Music With
I’m sorry for missing the deadline on Project X. I realize that my error reflects poorly on the team. I can complete my portion of the work by the end of the day tomorrow. Will that be OK, or would you like to see what I have in draft form?
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, sincere, and discuss what you might do differently the next time, because a good apology can go a long way.