Workplace Rights

Weekly (7/8/13)

Topic of the Week  Effective Apologies

  • Don't make it worse.
  • Focus on them.
  • Accept responsibility.
  • Accept that apologies can backfire.

Work Means Often Having To Say You're Sorry: Effective Apologies

If you've missed Paula Deen in the past few weeks, you just weren't paying attention. From her own apology videos to the Today Show, she appeared everywhere crying and explaining herself. Deen admitted that she'd committed a sin by using an offensive word but she also added, "I is what I is and I'm not changing. There's someone evil out there that saw what I had and they wanted it." Saying that you're "not changing" in an apology is not really an apology, it's a justification. It's no wonder after that sponsors just kept abandoning Deen's business empire. Which reminds me of the urban legend that when you break a bone it heals stronger than before. Doctors say that this isn't what really happens.

Bones might not heal stronger, but an effective apology can build a much stronger working relationship with the person that you harmed. But it won't just magically happen, you've got to lay the foundation for healing through your apology. This is especially hard at work, because many lawyers will caution you against apologizing for fear that it will increase legal liability and potential settlement costs. However, professor Jennifer Robbennolt, from the University of Illinois, discovered that apologies can actually reduce legal liability and damage awards. Below are four things to consider if you're in the position of having to give an apology at work.

Don't make it worse. Deen actually made it sound like she was the victim at one point on the Today show. Nothing is more damaging to your attempts to show contrition than to try to get people to feel pity for you. This still happens, remember Tony Hayward of BP saying that he'd like to have his life back after the massive oil spill in the gulf? Keep the focus on them and your mistake and not trying to make people feel sorry for you.

Focus on them. Think about the audience for your apology. Will they want you to go into the details, or just save them the pain of replaying the incident? Each person is different, put thought into making the apology fit your crime and the specific person that you're giving the apology to.

Accept responsibility. Just expressing sympathy often isn't enough, research says that accepting blame is what packs a powerful psychological impact. People like to know that this won't happen again and until you accept full responsibility there is no guarantee that it won't.

Accept that apologies can backfire. Even though the odds seem to favor an apology, there are risks attached so it's probably a good idea to talk to your corporate counsel before you say anything. But as professor Robbennolt points out, lawyers often have a blind spot when it comes to the effectiveness of apologies. So you'll probably have to push to give one.

Unfortunately for her, Paula Deen's business empire is probably beyond repair, but if you follow these tips there is probably still a lot that you can do to fix yours.


Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, "The Boss's Survival Guide." If you have a question for Bob, contact him via

Thought of the Week

"An apology? Bah! Disgusting! Cowardly! Beneath the dignity of any gentleman, however wrong he might be."

–Steve Martin

Weekly Comic by Jerry King

Weekly Comic by Jerry King

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    • In 1982 it was 1.9%



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