Workplace Apologies 101: How to Say “I’m Sorry” to Colleagues, Your Boss

two colleagues pointing to paper angrily and talking to other coworker

Everyone makes mistakes, which means knowing how to apologize is an essential part of building strong, productive relationships in your personal life and at work.

How you tackle the apology can speak volumes about your character and leave a long-lasting impression on your colleagues or your boss. A good apology means taking responsibility and offering a plan for how to make amends (and following through with it), while bad apologies can often do more damage to your workplace relationships than the original offense.

Here are the best ways to approach apologizing the right way at work:

Know when to apologize

Keep in mind that apologizing in the workplace is not the same as apologizing in your personal life. In some instances, there can be legal consequences to your mistakes (and even the apology), so if you’re unclear about the wider repercussions of your actions, check with HR or your legal department before issuing a formal apology or admission of wrongdoing.

However, most opportunities to apologies probably won’t fall under that category, so, in general, it’s best to apologize to the wronged party -- whether your boss, coworkers, or subordinates -- quickly and politely. Avoid going overboard by making large apologetic gestures (like buying gifts), and instead offer a simple “I’m sorry” for whatever you did, followed by a succinct plan of action on how you’ll avoid the same mistake in the future.

Then -- this is perhaps the most important part of the apology -- follow through with that plan. Your coworkers or boss will very likely forgive a one-time slip up (everybody has them), but repeated mistakes where you don’t follow through on promises to improve will erode their trust in you over time (and, in some cases, may even eventually put your job in jeopardy).

When saying “I’m sorry” isn’t the best option

Fake or insincere apologies can backfire in a big way at work. If you’re truly not at fault or you don’t believe that you have anything to apologize for, don’t offer a half-hearted apology just to smooth things over as this can very likely leave you coming across as disingenuous.

Likewise, don’t assume that an off-hand “I’m sorry” will instantly clear up any mishap. Truly effective apologies are always accompanied by a plan or a promise to avoid the mistake in the future and a sincere commitment to getting things right.

And, lastly, avoid ‘over-apologizing’ at work. Constantly apologizing for things (especially that don’t require an apology) can undermine your role or decision-making and give the sense that you’re insecure or unsure of your ideas.

The best way to apologize at work

Once you’ve decided that an apology is necessary, consider these helpful tips so your message is well-received and impactful:

  • Be active, not passive: Rather than saying something like “mistakes were made,” choose an active sentence structure instead with “I made a mistake.”
  • Don’t put conditions around the apology: When you apologize by saying something like, “I’m sorry if I offended you” or “I’m sorry if you took it the wrong way” (essentially, any apology accompanied by the word “if”), you run the risk of coming across as passive-aggressive and implying that you’re ultimately not at fault.
  • There’s no excuse for excuses: Attaching a string of excuses undercuts your apology and does not reflect well on your character or reputation at work.
  • Don’t ramble or exaggerate: Overdoing the apology by repeatedly saying “I’m sorry” or adding superfluous, over-the-language such as “A thousand of my deepest, most sincere, most heartfelt apologies!” (insert eye-roll here) actually makes you seem much more disingenuous and possibly even a little sarcastic.
  • Verbalize the offense: Once you know you’re in the wrong, approach the offended party and openly verbalize what has occurred when you apologize. Be specific but also brief, and let them know you’re clear on what the misstep was, which is the first and most important step in avoiding the same mistake in the future.
  • Open your ears and your mind: Sometimes, the people who are wronged need a few minutes to process your apology or may even respond or vent with their own take on things. This may not be especially pleasant to listen to, especially if it’s directed at you, but consider their point of view and listen patiently and without attitude. Don’t interrupt or try to make excuses as they talk, just listen. This can do wonders when you’re trying to rebuild some bridges that you may have burnt.
  • Don’t forget the two most important words: "I’m sorry" -- the two most powerful, important words to say when you’ve messed up. You don’t have to follow it up with much, but when you apologize sincerely and outright to your boss or your colleagues, a straightforward “I’m sorry” usually does the trick and allows everyone to move forward without resentment.

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